Music

Cody ChesnuTT: Landing on a Hundred

Cody Chesnutt transforms from a dirty-minded, talented musical libertine-dilettante to a thoughtful soul man.


Cody ChesnuTT

Landing on a Hundred

Label: One Little Indian
US Release Date: 2012-10-30
UK Release Date: 2012-10-29
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Cody ChesnuTT debuted in 2002 with The Headphone Masterpiece – a brash, aggressively carefree 36-track album, recorded by ChesnuTT entirely in his bedroom. ChesnuTT played sweet lullabies, soul, pop, futuristic funk rap, '60s California-sounding folk, and rock. Some songs were as short as 16 seconds, some a full four minutes, and the whole thing was held together by its tinny, lo-fi basement sound and a lot of jokes, most of them dirty – in addition to the famous hook about where ChesnuTT wants to put his seed, there was “I can make any woman mine / because I look good in leather / I can rock her body so good it blows her mind / because I know how to fuck her better.” And “I got a big fat dick and that’s all you’re gonna get / I gotta let you know / bitch, I’m broke.” As ChesnuTT noted in a recent interview, “Those songs were about how I was struggling to maintain my infidelity.”

“The Seed” was famously picked up by the Roots, who took the small, goofy basement track with potential and turned it into something huge, brutal, and funky, “The Seed 2.0”. (ChesnuTT can be seen strumming and singing the hook, dressed like a downtown New York cowboy, in the video). ChesnuTT had plenty of talent and tons of flash; he seemed poised to break through to a big audience. But then he dropped off the grid to rebuild his marriage and raise a family. He put out a short EP and a song for Obama, but was mostly absent until the release of his new album, Landing on a Hundred.

Listeners familiar with The Headphone Masterpiece and ChesnuTT’s “motherfucker, I’m cool with attitude and ego to spare” persona may be surprised by the result: an album recorded with a full-size band (including a horn section), a clear, brassy sound, a new instrumental focus on R&B grooves, a lyrical emphasis on social issues, and ChesnuTT doing a good job of becoming a smooth, emotive soul singer. Part of the new record was recorded in the studio in Memphis where Al Green recorded his incredible run of albums in the early '70s with Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, and the decision to record where Al Green made his best music is not just a gimmick to attract attention – Landing on a Hundred is a soul record. There are lush ballads, funkier numbers, and quick swinging tracks in the late ‘60s Motown style. The bass marches and struts, ChesnuTT’s guitar flickers choppily or punches the rhythm, a keyboard plays bluesy riffs, a string section makes repeated appearances. There’s an organ on some tracks, and backing vocalists echo ChesnuTT’s lead or drop in “ooh-oohs” and “ah-ahs.”

But the biggest forces on the album are ChesnuTT and the horns. ChesnuTT’s vocals are crystal clear. He emphasizes the soulful aspect of his delivery, playing off the backing vocalists, beginning “Til I Met Thee” with falsetto pyrotechnics, occasionally throwing out little “ohs” that evoke Marvin Gaye (like at the beginning of “I’ve Been Life”), sometimes slipping into a more spiritual tone reminiscent of Donny Hathaway’s 1970 album, Everything Is Everything. And the horns are everywhere, strong and unified, providing a thick counter to ChesnuTT’s vocal. On a song like “Under the Spell of the Handout,” the horns switch from bouncy big-band swing to slinky, sliding funk on a dime. They make the album sound big – startlingly big relative to ChesnuTT’s other work – rounding out the grooves, adding heft to this newly transformed soul singer.

While ChesnuTT has staked out a strong new sound, he has lost some of the irreverence that helped The Headphone Masterpiece acquire such a cult following. On that album ChesnuTT seemed willing to try it all, and completely uninterested in the usual considerations that go into making records – putting together something unified, writing a popular hit that doesn’t sound like it was recorded on a tape recorder in a closet under the stairs. These qualities were especially surprising and endearing considering how much talent the guy had; there are several songs on his debut that could have gotten the same treatment as “The Seed” and become hits.

ChesnuTT’s attitude on Landing on a Hundred is much more serious. This is evident even in the titles of songs: “Where Is All the Money Going”, “Under the Spell of the Handout”. He’s talking about important issues: losing his faith in God, the road to perdition, the working class’s relationship to democracy, the importance of long-term commitment in love, addressing problems rather than hiding behind an idea of cool, and the difficulties of drug addiction. ChesnuTT draws on a long and rich tradition of social commentary in soul music. His seriousness extends from his lyrics to his music – he is much less interested in experimentation here than he was on The Headphone Masterpiece. He’s doing 10 tracks of soul and funk in a traditional and recognizable way.

Landing on a Hundred shows ChesnuTT is capable of remarkable things, like completely transforming from a dirty-minded, talented musical libertine-dilettante to a thoughtful soul man. But in cleaning up his act and focusing his attention on socially relevant soul music, ChesnuTT left behind some of the experimentation and sense of playfulness that initially made him so beguiling. If he manages to combine his newfound commitment to powerful, cohesive soul music with some of his original spark and unpredictability, he could create a truly remarkable album.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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