[29 August 2002]
In 1990, Chuck Prophet cut Brother Aldo, his first solo record. Recorded shortly after he left Green on Red, a cow punk outfit from San Francisco, the album showcased his enduring interest in the blues as well as the countrypolitan sounds of ‘60s Nashville.
Prophet continued to play with hard and soft rural styles throughout the ‘90s, winning approval from the alt.country crowd with albums like Balinese Dancer, Feast of Hearts, and Homemade Blood. But then, after working with producer Jacquire King and contributing to Cake’s hip-hop scented Prolonging the Magic, the 30- or 40-something songwriter developed a taste for sampling, scratching and dubbing, which he then incorporated into his 2000 album The Hurting Business. This eclectic, melody-driven disc won Prophet more accolades, increased his fan base and helped him score a contract with New West Records, the brainchild of Peter Jesperson, the man who ‘discovered’ the Replacements 20 years ago.
No Other Love, Prophet’s first release on the new label, repeats and experiments further with the techniques he introduced on the The Hurting Business. And by making use of styles and sounds borrowed from artists as different from one another as Glen Campbell, Béla Bartók and Snoop Dogg, each of the album’s 11 tracks resembles a slice of a Vienneta ice cream cake, with layers of soul stacked upon surf upon Western Swing and so forth.
On “After the Rain”, for example, following an introductory line of electric guitar notes, Prophet ‘scratches’ the rim of a punch bowl to produce an eerie and sad six-note sequence which he repeats throughout the rest of the piece. When the song moves into the first chorus, Stephanie Finch’s ‘siren’ vocals sweep in amidst twirling keyboard riffs. Then, about midway through, an accordion materializes. And though the song is a soup, mixing up Baton Rouge and Compton, the musicians introduce their disparate parts with great restraint; and the result is a lullaby that grooves. The title track, likewise, pushes a melancholy (and gorgeous) melody into the foreground. In this instance, however, Prophet’s tenor introduces it. Set against a muted arrangement of strings and guitars, his voice moves like a wave—rising from trough to crest—as he sings, “No other love / Mama I’m flyin’ / No other love / Mama I’m flyin’”. Soon the strings, picking up the melody, swell around him and his falling voice cries, “I can go / I can go anywhere / No other love can take me there”. In the song’s third section, Prophet’s voice regains its strength and a balance is struck with the roaring strings. Then the piece climaxes and drops to the hush it started with, fading out as the lyrics return a last time.
“That’s How Much I Need Your Love”, in contrast, shies away from self-conscious prettiness. Yet it is no less structured. Held together by John Mader’s concrete drumming, the song moves lockstep from verse to chorus and verse to chorus to finale. But along the way, Prophet introduces and exploits several figures he’s pulled from pop music. After an acoustic guitar-and-bass-and-piano lead, for instance, a looped voice—sounding a lot like Joe Strummer’s on “Should I Stay or Should I Go”—starts in, crying “Whoo!”. Then Prophet lays down the first of many interesting lyrics: “If I was a Cadillac, you’d be my driving wheel / I’d carve your name into my hood to see how it would feel”. And soon Finch’s voice reappears, yowling like Edda Dell’Orso’s in Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which Prophet complements with surfy-spaghetti guitar licks. Eventually a disco bass line materializes, as well. And as the song ends, Prophet pushes all the parts together, constructing a big, beautiful hook that lurches along—with a broken heart—like Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein.
For over a decade now, critics have seized upon the importance of country music in Prophet’s material. And it’s true that on his latest record, many of the songs make use of traditional instruments, including the acoustic guitar, the Dobro and the one-string bass. In addition, several compositions—like “What Can You Tell Me” and “Run Primo Run”—are story songs that mimic the semi-tragic, semi-comic sentiments of Porter Wagoner and George Jones. But it seems to me, though, that Prophet tends to use country—as well as the turntable—to enhance songs that walk, talk and more or less sound like pop. In other words, he’s extremely guilty of appropriating others’ tricks for his own rock ‘n’ roll ends.
But so what. These songs—appealing to the brain, the hips and the heart all at once—are about as pleasant as contemporary music gets.