Star In A Better-Imagined Universe

Living in Athens, Chesnutt established a musical alliance with R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe, who produced his first two albums.

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

country-crooner

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

half-drunk delicacy.

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?