In a perfect world, the quirky, tale-spinning singer/songwriter Vic
Chesnutt would be a beloved, internationally acclaimed troubadour. But
the fractured, factionalized, bottom-line-obsessed world of contemporary
pop music tends to marginalize artists like Chesnutt, whose lyrics are
as deceptively plainspoken as they are instinctively insightful about
the human condition.
Consider the circumstances surrounding The Salesman and Bernadette,
the performer's sixth solo album. Backed by the nimble Nashville country
'n' soul band Lambchop, Chesnutt came up with the latest in a string of
tough/tender, emotionally honest, dryly humorous recordings -- a
many-layered not-quite-concept album that purports to offer brief
vignettes of a traveling salesman's life on his rounds. It stretches
from the mournful Salvation Army Band brass intro of "Duty Free" that
opens the collection to the haunting, high-tech pulsation of "Old Hotel"
that ends it.
Two months before the album's release date, Chesnutt's label -- Capitol
Records -- dropped him. Although Capricorn Records quickly picked up the
project, the fact that Chesnutt went through such a situation is
unfortunate. True, the guy's sales figures will never be mistaken for
those of, say, populist rocker Bruce Springsteen or even off-kilter
Lyle Lovett. But Chesnutt is the kind of musician who should be
coveted by record labels and audiences.
Native to rural Georgia, Chesnutt was exposed to the rich, rootsy sounds
of American folk and country music. You can hear it in the earthy,
backwoods ache of his voice. But he's also a child of the rock era, and
he first made his rep as a post-punk soloist-with-acoustic-guitar in
the college town of Athens, Ga. -- the same loam that nurtured
tongue-in-cheek new-wave pop group the B-52's and superstar folk-rock
band R.E.M. Living there, he established musical alliances with R.E.M.
lead singer Michael Stipe, who produced the first two Chesnutt albums,
and Athens jam-band Widespread Panic. (The latter teamed up with
Chesnutt to form the one-off group Brute.)
With the sophisticated Athens music scene as Chesnutt's base of
operations, it's no surprise that odd textures and unlikely influences
abound on The Salesman and Bernadette. The atmospheric touches in the
arrangements include the incidental "environmental" percussion (i.e. the
clink of glasses, as if in a near-empty bar) that helps give the
fatalistic love song "Bernadette & Her Crowd" its
Chesnutt toys with different genres on a handful of up-tempo numbers.
"Replenished" chugs like an old Stax-Volt R&B rave-up, but it also
shifts into disquieting passages that douse the party. The arrangement
to "Maiden" also has a Memphis soul vibe, as does the sarcastic "Prick,"
which echoes the songwriting style of Chesnutt's drawling-voiced peer,
Randy Newman, in misanthrope mode. "Until the Led"
is a lively, horn-driven number that is a cousin to the ska-influenced
pop-rock of the English Beat's "Save It For Later."
But the sad heart of the album is found in such ballads as "Mysterious
Tunnel," with its hint of Tex-Mex, and the ephemeral "Woodrow Wilson,"
with its free-verse wordplay and guest vocals by
rustic-country diva Emmylou Harris.
Often delivered in a quiet, almost whispery voice, Chesnutt's lyrics
display a remarkable eye for detailed observation that is almost
childlike in its bluntness. And in keeping with the album's theme,
there's a lonesome quality to much of it -- particularly in the poignant
"Parade" and the despairing "Blanket Over the Head" -- that reflects the
salesman's solitary journey.
And is that trip any lonelier than a brilliant, idiosyncratic artist's
progress in the context of a profit-driven music business?