Music

Vic Chesnutt: North Star Deserter

Featuring Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra, Guy Picciotto, and a host of others, Mr. Chesnutt's latest opus is a monument of haunted beauty, splintered fury, gloves off and gorgeous.


Vic Chesnutt

North Star Deserter

Label: Constellation
US Release Date: 2007-09-11
UK Release Date: 2007-08-27
Amazon
iTunes

All right, this is getting repetetive. With each new Vic Chesnutt album I find myself reduced to a puddle of effusive praise, to the point where I fear losing credibility. I mean, I gave 2005’s Ghetto Bells a 9, I just loved it. Where do I go from there and still leave the proverbial “one to grow on”? Particularly when the venerated songwriter drops an album like North Star Deserter from seemingly out of nowhere and it's one of the richest and most satisfying of his storied career. How can I impress this upon you, dear reader, who should by rights just expect I’m going to unquestioningly adore everything Chesnutt commits to wax? Should it be, “No, this time I really really mean it?” Should I concoct a pseudonym? Probably too late for that; next time perhaps. If you’re already a devotee, you understand the predicament, the natural excitement that comes with a new Vic Chesnutt record. There's allways more grace, more wit, more dirty humor, more idiosyncrasy and nuance. But trust me when I write that North Star Deserter, even more than its immediate predecessor, restores something to Chesnutt’s work that you’d never have known was missing.

Recorded in Montreal with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, North Star Deserter harkens back to Chesnutt’s raw, wobbly, powerful first recordings. The studio polish that adorned his New West albums (Silver Lake, and to a lesser extent, Ghetto Bells) is now completely stripped off, gone and banished. Epics like “Everything I Say” and “Debriefing” provide a nervy assault that hasn’t been attempted as intensely since the days of Texas Hotel. This is not a record concerned with playing pretty counterpoint to Chesnutt’s quirks. Its quietest and catchiest moments are still aggressive with the singer’s conviction, as fluffy snow can still bring out frostbite.

“You Are Never Alone” waltzes in sweetly with wobbling keyboards and brushed drums before Chesnutt sings, “It’s okay, you can use a condom / It’s okay, you can take Valtrex and / It’s okay, you can get an abortion / And then keep on keepin’ on.” The song eventually builds to a rousing chorus, by turns comforting and unsettling. “You Are Never Alone” explores the widening gulf between action and responsibility, the false solace taken in cure-alls, and the promise of Biblical forgiveness as excuses for one’s present behavior. But rather than being caustic or self-righteous, Chesnutt’s song sounds tender, knowing from experience, a less brusque extension of his own “In Amongst the Millions”, which marveled at medical advances’ ability to keep people alive who “should be a dirty piece of solid red ground.”

“Wallace Stevens” cleverly incorporates that poet’s own “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” into its brief two-minutes, utilizing the same haunting organ tones found on Little’s “Mr. Reilly”. “Rustic City Fathers” builds on Chesnutt’s familiar, midnight-hued nylon-string arpeggios to balance static-laden strings, dots of electric guitar, and a distant bass drum. Both songs are inheritors to moods and textures their author has mined before, from “Threads” to “Bakersfield”, but sound no less vital or original. Recorded scrappily yet lovingly, they return the kind of spontaneity that can’t help but lessen in the presence of studio pros and bigger budgets.

“Glossolalia” stomps in a minor chord frenzy, a frantic minuet with a cascading, wordless chorus by the whole gang, while “Marathon” is paced as steadily as its namesake, backed by waves of feedback. Bare-boned tracks like the opener “Warm” and “Fodder On Her Wings” are balanced by tracks like “Everything I Say”, which in turn alternate between moments of solitary beauty and those of full-on roar. Then the might of the full Orchestra is brought to bear without restraint, a cacophony arises that is new yet appropriate the songs, which hum with desperate energy. Short of inviting everyone I know over to experience North Star Deserter alongside me, note for note, word for word, you might just have to trust me. This time I really, really mean it.

9

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image