Chuck Prophet is a big time rock and roll star in a country that has forgotten that it needs big time rock and roll stars. America turns its popular musicians into celebrities as if that’s what we need more of. Meanwhile, the true grit, write it like you live it and live it ‘til it kills you musical artist exists in obscurity, kicking ass and taking names in small clubs every night while sweating blood over making records that few people buy anymore.
Chuck Prophet makes old-fashioned records, which is not to say that his music is dated: quite the contrary. Rather, he makes records that evoke a time when records, the physical things, mattered. Cohesive collections packaged with lyrics and informative liner notes, with care put into packaging and artwork that expanded upon the artist’s vision. And live, Chuck and his band, The Mission Express, will play a room of 500 people as if playing for 5,000 while pretending to be on a stadium stage in front of 50,000. That is, they fill any space to bursting, and Prophet owns the room, offering an elastic catalog of big-time rock moves that would ring hollow but for the obvious amount of heart he puts into it all. Prophet has seen plenty of the down-sides of the rock and roll lifestyle; onstage, he is a testament to its life-affirming power.
Chuck Prophet calls his new record “California Noir” noting its many West Coast inspirations: “doomed love, inconsolable loneliness, rags to riches to rags again, and fast-paced violence are always on the menu on the Left Coast.” Listening to Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins in relation to other among his recent releases, like Temple Beautiful and Night Surfer, one might wonder if “California Noir” is not a whole new sub-genre that Prophet has been inventing over the past several years. The opposite poles of San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with the dusty, sprawling highway towns in between, have become Prophet’s Yoknapatawpha County. The songs on Bobby Fuller, like so many others among his work this decade, constitute chapters in an ongoing, sun-splashed California gothic.
A specter of random death hovers over the album. The opening, title song finds the news of yet another kid being shot by a cop evoking, for Prophet, memories of the doomed early rock and roller Bobby Fuller, the would-be heir to Buddy Holly, whose own mysterious death in 1966 remains unsolved. Then there’s “Bad Year for Rock and Roll”, inspired in part by David Bowie’s death. Prophet sings of being overwhelmed with the randomness of time and mortality, so much so he chooses to ditch his usual rock and roll carousing for a night in, watching a Peter Sellers movie. One is left to presume that film was more likely Being There than one of Seller’s Pink Panther capers, the former a disturbingly timely examination of political celebrity and mass self-deception.
If there’s an embedded message in any of this, it might just be: Don’t slow down; just keep rocking. That pretty much describes Prophet’s mojo for the album’s 13 songs. “Open Your Heart” is a seductive ballad with Prophet offering the fabulous lead in “Some people carry grudges you know / For something you never did” before offering the sweet twist of “I don’t carry anything / Unless you count this torch for you.” Meanwhile “Your Skin” is equally seductive in the feral growl of its lead guitar, its sexed-up backbeat, and Prophet’s promise that “You’re gonna need protection, baby.” “Coming Out in Code” suggests a West Coast “Waitin’ for My Man”, while “Jesus Was a Social Drinker” mocks social prudes through a delightfully middle-brow portrayal of its subject.
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The album closes with “Alex Nieto”, an angry, elegiac reflection on 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto, who was shot over 14 times by San Francisco police officers threatened by the Taser he carried as part of his job as a nightclub bouncer. Rebecca Solnit’s in-depth article from The Guardian provides details for the curious. Prophet’s depiction is similarly journalistic; he eschews poetic representation, choosing instead unembellished facts that keep the wounds raw. He repeats a simple, trivial truth in heartbreaking past tense: “Alex Nieto was a pacifist, a 49ers fan”. He places it all atop a foundation of angry, ZZ Top-inspired riffs.
This recording’s version of Prophet’s backing band, the Mission Express, includes longtime partner Stephanie Finch on keyboards and backing vocals, with James DeFrato again trading guitar licks with Prophet, and is rounded out by Kevin White on bass and Vicente Rodriquez on drums. Prairie Prince, a drumming guest on Prophet’s previous Night Surfer, makes a guest appearance here as well.
Chuck Prophet is the kind of rock star we need more of: not so much unpretentious as a master of his pretentions; a sonic chameleon; curious, amused, angry, seductive, and sincere; a novelist in a Nudie suit.