Music

Supernatural: The Vic Chesnutt Re-issues

Michael Metivier

Supernatural:

The Vic Chesnutt Re-issues

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July, 1999: Vic Chesnutt is playing the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, taking an occasional request from the peanut gallery. From the back of the house a man calls out "Speed Racer!" to which Vic replies "Naw, that one's too hard." It's a heavy request. The song, in which Vic belts out "I'm not a victim, I'm an atheist!" is from his first record, Little. It has become one of the iconic Vic Chesnutt songs in a body of work that offers almost nothing but. "Speed Racer" is also the title Peter Sillen chose for his 1992 documentary on the Athens, Georgia songwriter. It's an overwhelmingly powerful, personal song, so it's no surprise that it's both a fan favorite and a live rarity. The audience member doesn't relent: "It's my birthday!" Chesnutt's eyes narrow as he leans forward a bit. There's an uncomfortable pause before he mutters, "You lying motherfucker." Then he starts to play... "Speed Racer".

June, 2004: After years of out-of-print status for Little and the rest of Vic Chesnutt's early oeuvre, the mighty "Speed Racer" can once again be heard at whim -- even if it's not your birthday. Little, West of Rome (1992), Drunk (1993), and Is the Actor Happy? (1995) were all originally released on the now-defunct Texas Hotel label. For a few years after its demise, one could still find the odd CD copy on a retail shelf, or buy a cassette from the man himself on one of his many journeys across Europe and the States. Otherwise, his back catalog mired in legal tar pits, you were out of luck. No more: New West Records, who released Vic's most recent album, Silver Lake, have picked up and re-released all four, with liner notes by folks such as Michael Stipe and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, expanded artwork, and generous helpings of bonus tracks. Rejoice.

Little (1990)
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.
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West of Rome (1992)
Although every one of his albums has been hailed as his best, West of Rome is the fan favorite by general consensus. The reason is hard to pin down, though as filmmaker/photographer Jem Cohen points out in the liner notes to its reissue, everything about it "is just right". Michael Stipe's production on the album is more involved than on Little, with nearly every song featuring Jeffrey Richards on drums and wife Tina Chesnutt on bass, with appearances by Vic's nieces "wherever Michael 'heard'" their respective violin and cello, Ray Neal, Kelly Keneipp, and Stipe himself. The performances are loose and woolly, every bit deserving of the "ramshackle folk" tag Q magazine once used to describe Vic's music.
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Drunk (1993)
Vic Chesnutt's third album, Drunk, was recorded before his second, West of Rome, was even released. But when Drunk dropped a year later, it was a very different beast, a prickly, cantankerous beast at that. It's his most difficult record, musically and otherwise. Just when you've found a delicate moment to latch onto, it squirms out of your hands and scratches you on its way down. This is all to say Drunk's a hell of a lot of ragged fun.
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Is the Actor Happy? (1995)
"I was supposed to tell you the case of a cult / It's called the cult of inspiration and it is rewarding", Vic Chesnutt sings on his fourth record, Is the Actor Happy?, referencing the artists' collective he belonged to along with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and others. The full member list has never to my knowledge been revealed, but Chesnutt has had a knack over the years for fruitful collaborations and partnerships.
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