Little was recorded in one day: October 6th, 1988. The session was produced by Michael Stipe at John Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia. New West’s reissue presents the original 10 songs with five bonus tracks that complete the session. As Stipe’s liner notes recall, “That I got producer credit on this LP is a laugh — there wasn’t a whole lot to do”. The production is indeed bare-bones. The songs are Chesnutt, his nylon-stringed guitar, and few embellishments. Harmonica, female harmonies, and ghostly keyboards are employed with deliberate care when needed.
Little is largely character-based, from “Danny Carlisle” and “Mr. Reilly” to the sexual quadrangle depicted in “Soft Picasso”. Stipe remembers Chesnutt’s weekly stint at Athens’ 40 Watt club (a flyer for which is reprinted in the new booklet), where each week an audience member would be roasted in song, but on CD it matters little if the stories are “true” or not. Chesnutt is not merely a reporter. His imagination colors both a song about dancing with Isadora Duncan, and a nostalgic account of growing up in Pike County, (“Isadora Duncan” and “Rabbit Box”, respectively). On the latter he sings “After a long while a bunch of doves flew by / And landed in a huddle on the power line / So I aimed with an eagle’s eye and fired / But it was two pigeons that fell like bean bags into the weeds / But they sure looked like doves to me”. The lyrics represent straightforward, efficient storytelling with an eye for idiosyncratic details that most songwriters miss.
One of the three stories told in “Mr. Reilly” is a prime example of Chesnutt’s ability to mix comedy and tragedy without negating the power of either. “Have you heard the news about “Joan, our ex-newspaper girl? / They found her swinging from a tree and idle / Just a week ago she was beautiful / But now she’s rather vile”. Chesnutt’s humor often lies in pointing out truths so uncomfortable they become absurd. Chesnutt never stoops to sentimentality; there’s no need to tell us that the death of an adolescent girl is sad. Instead, he confronts it the way he sees it: “They found her in her skates / She was the coldest cadaver in the state / And look at the lake / Not even the ducks are risking it”. Keyboards swirl around like frost in the breaks between the mostly minor-chord verses, tempering the comic details. The end result is a song that refuses to tell you how to feel.
“Speed Racer” is like a giant fist, but instead of shaking at the heavens, it’s aimed at those who would seek to use religion as an excuse for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives. Never one to pull punches, Chesnutt lets loose: “The idea of divine order is essentially crazy / The laws of action and reaction are the closest thing to truth in the universe”. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in Chesnutt’s songs, that personal responsibility for one’s choices is tantamount. His characters, even at their most down-and-out, are never pitied or pitiful. The bullied late-bloomer of “Danny Carlisle” is “barely grown and he’s used up most of his options / But still he would rather dream dream dream / Still he would rather dream than fuck”.
Between Little’s final number (the crackly, home-recorded “Stevie Smith”) and the bonus tracks is a 15-second buffer that allows the album to be enjoyed as a separate experience. This gesture is indicative of the care and attention New West gave these releases. In the world of reissues, best-of collections, and anniversary editions, it’s a rare occasion when the presentation matches the standard of the material. Of course, the bonus material here is exceptional.
Two of the songs from the Little session ended up on subsequent albums. “Miss Mary” on the follow-up, 1992’s West of Rome, and “Bernadette” on 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette. Both songs are about a minute shorter than their final incarnations, played more aggressively in the same solo manner as the rest of Little. Though they’re as solid as the rest of the album, it’s clear why they were saved for later. “Miss Mary”, with its implied image of masturbating the Virgin, would have felt out of place with the rest of the material, and “Bernadette” ultimately deserved a quasi-concept album of her own. “Vernon” and “Acting So Bad” round out the set along with “Elberton Fair”, whose lyrics are a poem written by the late author/historian John Seawright, also Chesnutt’s close friend.
Rather than being a debut that contains in seed form what would later secure the artist’s place in canon, Little is a solid document in its own right. The starkness of the recording sounds like it’s being performed in your living room, especially in its newly remastered glory. Michael Stipe recounts in his notes, “I think it was near fall when I went up to him, presented myself and said we need to get some of these songs down on tape before you drink yourself to death and that’s what we commenced to do”. Good thing too: it only took one day to produce a first album superior to what most accomplish after 10.