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Nashville Scene Mr. Pitiful

Georgia lights shine on Vic Chesnutt's latest

By Bill Friskics-Warren

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  I just want to be Aaron Neville," deadpanned Vic Chesnutt on "Sad Peter Pan," a song from his 1995 album, Is the Actor Happy? Here, one suspected, Chesnutt--a consummate wag whose creaky warble is but a chirp compared with Neville's numinous tenor--was having fun at his own expense. So when eight lines later he vowed, "a transformation I sware (sic) it will occur," how were we to know he meant it? The Athens, Ga., singer-songwriter achieves his unlikely metamorphosis, albeit one born more of Memphis than New Orleans, on his new album, The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn).

Chesnutt still has croaky pipes--it's not as if he's sworn off the bong or anything. Singing in a falsetto here, a gentle murmur there, he nevertheless has made a latter-day soul record. And just to make sure we get it, Chesnutt announces his intentions from the start. The disc's first track, "Duty Free," opens with a doleful brass choir akin to that of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness"; the song ends, as does Redding's "Dock of the Bay," with a wistful a cappella whistle.

Musically, a good two-thirds of Salesman plumbs the lighter side of Stax/Volt--that, and the Muscle Shoals sound of such countrified soulsters as Joe Simon, Joe Tex, and James & Bobby Purify. "Maiden," with its swelling horns, tinkling vibes, and wide, roiling groove, even evokes the Purifys' "I'm Your Puppet," the theme of which surfaces in "Arthur Murray." "Emasculate me with your biology," croons Chesnutt, his wisp of a tenor awash in the song's undulating rhythms. "Bend me, break me, I'm worthless."

Chesnutt conspires throughout with Nashville's No. 1 puppet, Lambchop, an expansive ensemble that's been digging the tangled roots of hillbilly music and R&B for some time now. Unlike Widespread Panic, the glorified frat-rockers who abetted Chesnutt on 1995's Nine High a Pallet, Lambchop never sounds like a band for hire. The 'Chop, who've toured extensively with Chesnutt, know that the key to the singer's music is his phrasing. Without slipping into retro-glide--witness the groovy dissonance of "Prick"--their booting horns, smoky organ fills, and chicken-scratch guitars would have you believe they've been punctuating Chesnutt's sentences forever.

It's tempting to chalk up Chesnutt's emergence as a soul man to production and arrangements. Compare "Prick," for instance, with "Sleeping Man," a track from his third album, Drunk. Structurally, both songs resemble Wire's "Strange." "Sleeping Man" even evinces the British art-punk group's brittle textures. "Prick," on the other hand, greased as it is with fatback rhythms, puts you in mind of Otis' "I'm Sick Y'all." And were it not for the Lambchop guitarists, who help transform "Mysterious Tunnel" into a dreamy variant of Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk," the song would doubtless sound like "Gravity of the Situation Revisited." (Elsewhere, the guit-pickers channel Steve Cropper and Hank Garland.)

That said, it could just be that Chesnutt has been a soul man all along, if not formally, then at least in spirit. To belabor the Redding comparison further, Chesnutt's tortured romanticism, including his at-times excruciating displays of vulnerability, recalls nothing so much as the anguished ballads--"Pain in My Heart," "Mr. Pitiful," "These Arms of Mine"--of his fellow Georgian.

Of course, Chesnutt always tenders his tropes with self-deprecating wit and purges them of self-pity. "She knows where she stands, on the heart of a broken man," he mourns, lovelorn and bemused, on "Maiden." Elsewhere, resigned to play the cuckold, he sighs, "She's so fashionable. She's a Nazi when she's shopping, but wholly democratic, you should see who she's been bopping."

Chesnutt's nakedness can just as easily be sexy. "Cotton breathes between her cheeks. Spin me. Weave me. I'm willing," he swoons on the languorous "Arthur Murray." "Replenished" finds him savoring the thought of getting it up in the morning. "Sitting in the breakfast nook, flipping through a saucy book, browsing for a bit of titillation," he drools, spurred on by the lascivious Lambchop singers.

All of the album's songs are of a piece, except "Woodrow Wilson"--an inscrutable ramble for which Chesnutt enlists Spygirl Emmylou Harris--and its last two songs, which serve as a harrowing coda to a gorgeous and deeply affecting record. Spare, feedback-drenched, and unrelentingly dark, these tracks find Chesnutt facing his demons.

"Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?" he agonizes on "Square Room," the penultimate track. "Why do I dream of a cozy coffin? I had all these plans of great things to accomplish, but I end up totally pathetic more than often." Oddly bereft of soulfulness, this is the dark night of the soul.


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