[22 January 2009]
Vic Chesnutt is nothing if not blessed with friends. Each new album seems to find him backed by talented collaborators with solid back catalogues of their own. Lambchop, Widespread Panic, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra are among the many bands and artists to help flesh out Chesnutt’s songs, yet such is the uniqueness of the Athens, Georgia songwriter that however varied in texture and scope, each release remains distinctively his. Add Elephant 6 veterans Elf Power to that illustrious group of enablers. Despite its title, Dark Developments is a playful departure from last year’s (mostly) grim and spooky North Star Deserter. More along the lines of Chesnutt’s work with Widespread Panic in the side project Brute, the album collects songs with lyrical structures and subjects that are goofier, more bizarre, or else just wouldn’t fit on other more “serious” releases.
I don’t mean to suggest that the tunes aren’t substantive, only slightly woollier than usual. The seven-minute closer “Phil the Fiddler”, for instance, is essentially a cast of characters with identifying details, some mentioned once (“Tom the bootblack”, “Joe the hotel boy”) and others highlighted for extended refrains (“The girl in the gingham dress”, “the kid with the aubergine eye”). There’s no story to string them together, nothing like the newspaper-girl’s sad tale of “Mr. Reilly” or even the unifying family resemblances of “Woodrow Wilson”, yet Chesnutt sings with his usual passion and panache, as if the occupations and identities are interesting enough. And they are. Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums noodle on an extended outro that could’ve also proven tedious, but the band is leaner and less conventionally jammy than Brute, and both singer and band create something big and strange that’s still worth paying attention to.
Elsewhere, there’s the edgy “Little Fucker”, sing-along “We Are Mean”, both unwinding single concepts and conceits into repetitive yet engagingly humble pop-rock songs. “Teddy Bear” drills its central lyric, “He ain’t never coming back”, over and over again with only a brief bridge of hushed clarification. Keyboards gurgle and swoon while Chesnutt’s trademark nylon-string plucks alternating notes in the background. Throughout Dark Developments, the band seems to provide emotional context normally embedded in the songwriter’s dense wordiness. But as this set of songs leans more toward Chesnutt’s Stevie Smith fixation as opposed to say, Wallace Stevens, Elf Power and the Strums are a natural fit, imbuing “Mystery” with casual grace, and “And How” with a playful buoyancy rarely approached on records past. Recorded in Chesnutt’s attic studio, the album sounds very much the result of after-work and weekend restorative camaraderie.
The one song that recalls the more melancholic tones of songs like “Threads” and especially “Betty Lonely” is “The Mad Passion of the Stoic”, which is based around a gorgeous minor key guitar phrase and thin swaths of organ. Chesnutt sings the verses in a fog of other voices, from the Greek chorus-like echo of the band to his own falsetto. Its gloom scuffs up the mostly sparkly and shiny Dark Developments, making it seem more akin to similar meditations on Ghetto Bells and North Star Deserter, yet its presence amidst the bouncier material is welcome, and demonstrates that the collaboration has the capacity to strike more than one note, and the potential to be more than your average side project or lark.