Silver Lake (New West Records)
Yeah, the lousy poet in me can’t lie no more.Vic Chesnutt, “Styrofoam”
We critics like to make poets of our favorite songwriters. It justifies our education and rationalizes their obscurity, for high poetry is the province of an exquisite, ephemeral elite. Besides, words are easier for writers to grapple with than, say, the nuances of guitar tunings.
Of course, a few songwriters actually are poetsJim Carroll, Tom House, Shel Silverstein; some would say Bob Dylan. But mostly, critics find and extol poetry in lyrics that are personal and idiosyncratic, in lines that make good epigrams, largely as a way to justify (well, draw attention to) marginal careersours, and the songwriter’s.
Vic Chesnutt has been cursed with the adoration of critics. His newest effort, Silver Lake, is his ninth album, on his seventh labelnot counting his participation in the Widespread Panic side project Brute. Named for the L.A. neighborhood in which it was recorded, Silver Lake is a good-sounding record, well made, not too carefully crafted and writerly. Though it’s no longer what gets played on Top 40 radio, this is the sound now called “pop” in the indie record shops.
Writing songs maybe wasn’t Chesnutt’s first choice. He was 18 and drunk and put his car in a Georgia ditch, long time gone. After the accident, he shoplifted an anthology of 20th century poetry in Nashville. Before, he’d listened to a lot of Beatles records. He doesn’t have their sense of humor (says he liked the “square” poets). No, he has his own caustic jokes. Witness “Girls Say,” a Mars and Venus kind of change of pace (alternating lines begin “girls say” and “boys say”) that breaks up the first half of Silver Lake. It’s almost a clever throwaway until you find a hard couplet buried mid-song: “Physiology is no mystery / A jigsaw puzzle is only a trial and error game.”
Chesnutt sings in a pleasant, unexceptional voice. Perhaps it will remind you of a calm, more melodic Neil Young. (Certainly, a few of Young’s guitar twitches adorn songs here.) Because it is now clear that we come to his albums to hear what he has to say, Chesnutt’s vocals are wisely moved clearly to the foreground of Silver Lake.
And they matter, those words do. After all, he opens with, “Forget everything I ever told you / I’m sure I lied way more than twice,” and it gets no easier. Story-songs, memories, private ruminationsit could be a gloomy set, like Mark Eitzel’s solo outings. It is not, not really. Chesnutt’s supporting cast (largely Daryl Johnson, Doug Pettibone, Mike Stinson, Patrick Warren and Don Heffington, with producer Mark Howard) emphasize the strengths of his melodiesthose Beatle tendenciesand provide much the same leavening that American Music Club once offered Eitzel, only with more rock.
The tracks swell and crescendo, and some of the choruses ask to be sung with. At its own stately, largely reserved pace, Silver Lake is an overtly pop record. Later, of course, the listener tumbles to what Chesnutt’s writing and singing about, at which point the unease settles in.
But we didn’t come here for comfort, not exactly. As Kenny Roby (late of 6 String Drag) sings, “It’s sad, but I’m glad it ain’t me.” And there’s some of that here, for Chesnutt writes about the hospital and foul sheets and...love. But if it’s worth noting the grimness with which he opens Silver Lake, it’s also worth contemplating the tonic with which it ends, the quite beautiful “In My Way, Yes.” The third stanza begins, “Don’t’cha’ feel silly? / I say no with my love no.”
This is not geek love. We do not come to Vic Chesnutt because he is bound to a wheelchair, because he might show up one night too drunk to sing. Not for nine albums, we don’t hang around that long for a freak show. We come because his voice has the power to touch us.
While Japanese MCs have yet to receive props outside Asia, DJs there have been carrying the flag of the rising sun in hip-hop and dance music for years. Japan’s leading turntablist is Hideaki Ishi, a.k.a. DJ Krush. Like some of his U.S. counterparts, Krush used hip-hop as a way to escape the criminal life; while the latter provided him with the requisite street cred, the former gave his life meaning and direction, allowing him to express his creativity in what was, circa 1987, a new art form in Japan. Since then, Krush has become one of the most sought-after remix producers in electronic music, working with the likes of Mos Def and Herbie Hancock.
Krush’s ability to spin in many styles is his greatest strength, as witnessed on Shinsou: The Message at the Depth (Sony/Red Ink), in which he drops beats in modes ranging from trip-hop to dub to abstract ambience. Okinawan singer Angelina Esparza indulges the DJ’s predilection for trip-hop by supplying plaintive female vocals over down-tempo rhythm tracks.
Krush and his team recorded the album in Jamaica, in a tribute to the dub music that’s been such an influence on his style. Riddim pioneers Sly and Robbie appear on “The Lost Voices,” where a steady beat squares against samples of bamboo flute notes and alto sax riffs. Reggae singer-songwriter Abijah lends a Rasta vibe to “What About Tomorrow,” which under Krush’s direction becomes a melodic mixture of roots reggae and head-bobbing ambience.
Like his peers Shadow and RJD2, Krush is essentially a hip-hop DJ, albeit with the sensibility of a jazz musician; he’s more into producing a wall of sound than a tight beat. He’s also a DJ who likes to play with your feelings, one who sees himself as an abstract artist seeking to evoke certain emotions while allowing listeners to discover their own truths within his music.
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