On About To Choke, Vic Chesnutt Doesn't

There are several reasons one might expect Vic Chesnutt's latest album to

be grander in scale than his earlier efforts. About to Choke is

Chesnutt's major label debut, after recording four records for Texas Hotel

during the first half of the '90s. Additionally, this album bears the

stamp of approval from ex- Husker and Sugar man Bob Mould, who mixed the

record from tapes recorded in New York and Atlanta. Moreover, Mould's

name can be tacked on to a list of Chesnutt's praise-singing peers, most

notably R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who has offered his accolades for years.

Most importantly, however, About to Choke appears on the heels of

the universally praised Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation,

a benefit record featuring other artists paying tribute to Chesnutt's

songwriting. Included in the album's roster of Chesnutt fans were not

only R.E.M. but also such popular and alternative heavyweights as Smashing

Pumpkins, Madonna, Hootie & the Blowfish, Soul Asylum, Cracker, and

Garbage.

Perhaps the aggregate magnitude of all these circumstances led Chesnutt to

title the album About to Choke. Diminish people's expectations,

the rationale goes, and if you fall you won't fall so far. Some of the

songs on this album do require repeated listenings to make themselves

clear, and a couple others quite possibly have no intention of making

themselves clear. Nonetheless, the material on About to Choke

provides no reason for Chesnutt to fear falling. These songs indeed

reinforce the solid ground on which he already stands.

Chesnutt continues to make his most memorable moments quietly, using

prickly turns of phrase along with sparse accompaniment. But he knows how

to be bold as well as humble. Capitol appropriately released this album

in the fall, for if musical tones can conjure colors, Chesnutt's work

often invokes autumnal oranges and browns. He doesn't call up more

pronounced hues the way someone such as Prince (purple) or Elvis (red,

white, and blue) or the sensual Stones (red) might. Chesnutt's

compositions are more understated than these artists. Orange, however,

can be blazing as well as softly muted, and one ought not infer that

Chesnutt can't be venomous or brazen within his less than brash musical

context. His boldness in fact may be strengthened by its humble confines.

In this light, the listener may be slightly surprised by About to

Choke's last and best song, "See You Around," which abandons those

usual humble confines. Like "Jungle Land" on Springsteen's Born to

Run, or "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on the Rolling

Stones'Let It Bleed, "See You Around" builds verse upon verse to a

culmination that closes the album with a definitive goodbye. Its

vehemence and classic rock construction mark the song as one of Chesnutt's

most Dylanesque compositions. There is none of Chesnutt's quiet

quirkiness here, only the speaker spitting squarely in the face of a

former ally. It's not the picture the song paints that's so distinctive,

but rather the size of the canvas and brush that Chesnutt uses, both of

which are bigger than his standard issue. If he's about to choke at the

album's beginning, he gains enough confidence along the way to pull no

punches on this final number.

Aside from the Monster-ish "Ladle" and a Crazy Horse-like turn on

"Giant Sands," the eleven songs that lead to "See You Around" are, as is

more typical for Chesnutt, hushed endeavors. On the album's opener,

"Myrtle," the singer describes himself over delicate and spare piano and

guitar as "a funny pilgrim on a crazy crusade" as well as a "saucy

Chaucer." While one should hesitate to assume the number has anything to

do with Chesnutt's own life, be it his drunk and asleep at the wheel

accident that put him in a wheelchair or some occasion more mundane,

"Myrtle" feels like a sincere description, even a confession. Its skeletal

form and enigmatic lyrics make it an odd but intriguing choice for

Chesnutt's first song on a major label.

From there, Chestnutt leads us to a much simpler place in "New Town."

Rather than detailing a dying community like Mellencamp's "Rain on the

Scarecrow" or Springsteen's "Youngstown," this song looks into a village

just being born. Guitar picking suggests the busy excitement of a newly

created borough. The unspoiled place smells of lumber, its smiling mayor

woos industry to the area, and no one imagines dirty tricks among the

rookie police. Chesnutt explicitly equates the place with "Americana." Of

course, Americana in the last twenty years has grown to include a large

measure of cynicism, specifically regarding the public sphere. While "New

Town" is bustling now, the listener knows not to expect the bustle to

last. The song's optimism is tempered by an air of caution, and Chesnutt

reveals both the hope and the angst in his depiction of New Town's newest

resident:

The little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath from over his beaming

mamma's shoulder. He's staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as

far as he can see-- but he'll stop staring when he's older.

Halfway through the album, Chesnutt wisely lightens its mood without

sacrificing his creativity on the instrumental "(It's No Secret)

Satisfaction," which then leads into "Little Vacation." In the latter,

the funny pilgrim has changed form to become a joint master of ceremonies

and civic executive. Assisted by synthesized ballroom music, the song

inspires images of a board meeting bursting into a swinging affair, like

that film short where a hockey game breaks out into a dance performance.

"Little Vacation" stands as a gem in its own right, but also as a breather

before the second half of the album begins.

Woven throughout About to Choke are a number songs that necessitate

several listens to fully appreciate. Some of them, such as "Swelters" or

"Threads," are created as delicately as whispers. While they carry in

them a sketch or story, they call for repetition to completely limn their

tales (and some still remain mysterious). The listeners that stick with

these numbers through several plays will be rewarded by a song like

"Tarragon." "Tarragon" is as gentle as a lullaby with an oft repeated

refrain that could surely soothe a child into sleep. The verses draw a

picture of an "anonymous Adonis," the unknowing object of someone's

affection. The refrain, however--"The band in the back room played

on"--could once again describe Chesnutt himself. Sung after the song's

every line, it creates a consistent backdrop of music around the main

action. Perhaps that's how Chesnutt prefers to arrange his own situation.

Amid the hoopla of his major label debut and the acclaimed tribute album,

he would rather ignore the fanfare and keep playing. It sounds like a

plan for success.