[1 March 2012]
Legend has it that during the recording of Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim is True his backing band (which following a haircut and name change eventually backed Huey Lewis) would refer to EC’s various songs as “the Byrds one” or “the Velvet Underground one”. Listening to Temple Beautiful it’s difficult not to imagine a similar scene taking place with “The Kinks one”, “Tom Petty one” and “the Velvet Underground era Lou Reed effortlessly filtered through Jonathan Richman one” standing in for song titles. San Francisco’s Chuck Prophet wears his influences on his sleeve and of course there’s nothing immoral there, providing the artist can bring something of his/her’s to the party. With Prophet’s quirky voice and often inspired imagery cutting through a stripped down mix featuring his bare-knuckle Telecaster front and centre there’s little need to worry about that. What’s more, Prophet has penned a record which pays homage to his home town with its beauty, peculiarities and dark-edged mystery rarely dozing into cliché. A lot of Temple Beautiful works and works well while what doesn’t is still a pretty good earful of rock ‘n’ roll candy.
For those of a certain age (mine) a lot of this record might sound like some rock ‘n’ roll gem recorded in 1978 (just for fun let’s say with Nick Lowe producing) and then cryogenically frozen to be listened to in some dark, dystopian future desperately short of good tunes (i.e. 2012). Songs like “Castro Halloween” (it’s not about Fidel trick or treating) and the album opener “Play That Song Again” burst forth with a mixture of (real) attitude and hooks scarcely heard on the airwaves since Carter Country was wrapping up its final episode. “Temple Beautiful” (apparently the name of Jim Jones’s groovy Frisco worship pad) sounds so much like the Low Budget-era Kinks you may be tempted to shout “Chuck Prophet is the answer” (the question being “What would Ray Davies have sounded like had the Gods placed him on Nob rather than Muswell Hill?”). Again catchier than a cold. Speaking of Ray and Dave, “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” sure sounds like a little homage to rock’s original battling brothers, though that would take us a bit out of the Bay Area context.
Whoever the subjects are, it’s one of the best things on the record. Temple Beautiful‘s centrepiece is the aptly titled “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat”. Somewhere between Bukowski, Dylanesque free-association and the old NBC Game of the Week, we find Bugs and Daffy hitching up the coast, Carol Doda, Jim Jones, Laffing Sal and Billy Graham getting up to various misdeeds while the Say Hey Kid swings for the fences at Candlestick. In a nutshell, it’s the San Francisco of North Beach, 1965 free concerts in the park and the old Barbary Coast district. Speaking of the third, “Who Shot John” is a nice update on “Hey Joe” (Link Wray why did you leave us before covering this gem?) with plenty of added crunch guitar work and another nice Davies vocal homage. The Tom Petty flavoured “He Came From So Far Away” paints a picture of yet another eccentric drifter who’s made his way to the city of minds open and backs to the sea. Sitting on the dock of the bay…
If Temple Beautiful has a caveat, it’s that it runs out of gas in the later innings. The 1950s-flavoured “Little Girl, Little Boy” features Prophet’s wife Stefanie Finch on backing vocals and is clearly shooting for Gram and Emmylou duet heights. Unfortunately, it wears out its welcome pretty quickly. The new waveish “White Night, Big City” opens like Dire Straits “So Far Away”, features Sha Na Na on codeine cough syrup harmonies and takes us back to the 1979 SF riots following the slap on the wrist given to murderer Dan White. See Sean Penn in the film Milk for further details and leave this dog alone. The record closes in a curiously anticlimactic fashion with “Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)”. A homage to a Bay Area populist hero who printed his own local currency, the song features Lennon’s famous “How Do You Sleep” chord change (you’ll recognise it) and fades away just as you might be expecting Chuck to let that telecaster rip one final time on his way out. Disappointing but then hey, it’s a Frisco record…who needs the tried, true and predictable?
Chuck has made us a fun, tuneful rock ‘n’ roll record that’s both straight from the gut and as wonderfully curved as the city which inspired it. In this day and age that’s enough to make anyone seem like a Prophet.