[27 October 2004]
Chuck Prophet is a reliable talent, as comfortable and effortless as an old pair of boots. He’s the songwriter you can turn your friends on to and still take home to mom on the weekends. Unfortunately, he’s also the songwriter whose solid output is frequently taken for granted. Each new record he releases holds the promise of a mainstream watershed moment, but ubiquity has conveniently and consistently escaped him. Lucinda Williams offered Prophet the opening slot on a recent tour, thanks to the strength of 2002’s No Other Love; despite such cross-promotional endorsements, it’s safe to assume you’re more familiar with brothers-in-spirit like Joe Henry or Ron Sexsmith.
Maybe the recurring theme of neglect is simply in the stars for Prophet. He first appeared as a blip on the roots rock radar screen as a member of Green on Red, a band that helped usher in the alt-country resurgence of the early ‘90s. The band had dissolved by the time more prominent torchbearers like Uncle Tupelo began sprouting like an overgrown cornfield.
Age of Miracles is Prophet’s seventh album since Green on Red’s demise, and while excessively accessible, marks a continued distancing from that band’s signature sound. Prophet still bears the mark of a roots songwriter, favoring earthy instrumentation, pedal steel adornments and a sandpapery voice that can scratch deep ‘neath a graveled ground; but Age of Miracles clandestinely adds some soul, funk, and even elemental hip-hop to the equation. The album’s nuggets of perfection healthily overcompensate for the moments that fail to maintain a logical balance, but it’s really of little consequence if Prophet occasionally misses the mark. (For the record, the sometimes-clumsy “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)” and the calamitous “Heavy Duty” stick out as two tracks that are nearly ponderous.) By working incognito, Prophet is allowed the periodic indulgence; when things don’t exactly work out for the best, he’s picked himself back up by the next track.
Still, Age of Miracles has plenty of soon-to-be-classic ringers to warrant a wholehearted recommendation. The thick Los Lobos groover “Automatic Blues” lumbers forward with a bluesy inebriation. Amid the spittooned reed bellyaches of hornman Ralph Carney, Prophet looks for alternatives to the stifles of modernity: “Well, some things aren’t built for fixin’ / Make more sense to throw away / The touch of something human / Is what I really crave.” The weariness of Bob Dylan is felt in the crystalline strums of the shining title track, a song where wah-wah guitars sigh over one of Prophet’s strongest melodies to date. “There’s plenty work for everyone / Where two and two add up to one,” Prophet intones, attempting to inject optimism into a world of false hopes, “Let’s sing this song in unison / In the age of miracles.”
One of the album’s most indelible marks is its earth-toned production, courtesy of Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Frank Black), Craig Schumacher (Richard Buckner) and Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo). The little things are what add up in Age of Miracles: the slow-motion windshield wipe of the strings in the literal “Smallest Man in the World”; the encroaching sense of danger imbedded in the grain of “West Memphis Moon”; the toasty handclapped soul in the simple but effective “You’ve Got Me Where You Want Me”; and the shivering funk laced with whiplash guitars in the swindler’s tale “Monkey in the Middle” all provide unique ingredients to the album’s brew of universality.
It wouldn’t be improper to label Prophet the John Hiatt of his generation; he has the keen ear to craft timeless, inconspicuous songs and the uncontrollable ability to be simultaneously revered and unknown. If you were to research reviews of his past records, each would probably assert that this is the record to finally push Prophet into the limelight. I would say that again here, but at this point, who cares if that will ever evolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy; for now, just listen.