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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Music Review

Dark Developments
Vic Chesnutt
w/ Elf Power and Amorphous Strums

Back in the days before people bought stuff off the internet, I used to scrounge around record stores to try and find Vic Chesnutt albums, to little success. His 1996 release, About to Choke is one of the albums which truly changed my life. The previous album, Is The Actor Happy? (95) was even better. Chesnutt's back catalogue, in the mid-90's best found through mail order, includes the near masterpieces Drunk (93) and West of Rome (91).

What made Chesnutt so unique was that he filled a vaccuum of sorts. With Kurt Cobain dead and post-grunge alternative rock being appropriated by corporate interests, unlike the bands which ruled the airwaves, he was able to be emotional, anxious, all the while not taking himself or any of the situations too seriously. He was a definitively Indie musician; it took a star-studded "benefit" album to bring him to somewhat national attention. He was a songwriter's song writer envied by the likes of Billy Corgan, Nanci Griffith, and Mark Linkous to name a few.

But ever since Indie rock became Indie rock at the turn of the century, Chesnutt has been in a conundrum. Similar to what fellow Athens, GA musicians and good friends REM had in the late 90's. How was he supposed to reconcile the success of a music he helped create, he's essentially the father of contemporary indie-folk, while still sounding as fresh and individualistic as his early albums? What was his signature low-fi and sound was replaced with various collaborations with more musicians, and his last 6 or so albums have been made with everyone from Van Dyke Parks to Lambchop, throwing in brass sections and gilding his music with Scott Walker-like production overkill. Silver Lake, perhaps because of its quick recording period, was the lone exception, but even that was dour and at times over-dramatic.

Dark Developments is a misleading title. This album takes itself less seriously, is quite playfully bright, and is less brooding than any of Chesnutt's last 6 or so albums, and the first time in over a decade he's sounded like Vic Chesnutt. Perhaps why Elf Power works so well as a collaborator is that they stay as far back as possible from intruding on Chesnutt.

From the very start of the album, as Chesnutt sings the instrumental line of a purposefully lazy play on Cannon in D, "Mystery," it's evident that this is the same songwriter behind "Sad Peter Pan," or "Wrong Piano." The songs on the album, accompanied with minimal instrumentation, guitars, small drum kit, harmonica, and chimes, is full of vintage Vic. Profane, honest, melancholy, yet hopeful. Coming from the same southern tradition of Walker Percy and John Kennedy O'Toole, or the film sensibilities of David Gordon Greene; tragi-comedies which are far more layered than their existentially uninterested appearances.

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