Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums Dark Developments

[Orange Twin; 2008]

Styles: dark despairing pop
Others: Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, Lou Reed, David Bazan, Mark Eitzel, John Cooper Clarke

Georgian bard Vic Chestnutt has been in an inspired mood over the last few years. After North Star Deserter's return to form comes Dark Developments, an album that is less devastating than its predecessor but much more varied and spontaneous-sounding. Chesnutt always makes for compelling listening, but he lately seems to have left his solo folk persona in the dust. Instead, Chesnutt appears hellbent on forging relationships with those who can help him mold a truly unique work every time out. North Star Deserter, for example, was bolstered mightily from musicians culled from the Constellation Records stable (Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, etc.), and on his latest album, Chesnutt has got himself some magnificent foils, recording with versatile merrymakers Elf Power and enigmatic backing band The Amorphous Strums. The result is different than many of his previous albums, but it's one that hits enough familiar Chesnutt notes that it can be filed nicely among the touchstones in his impressive oeuvre without any hesitation.

For example, what would a Vic Chesnutt album be without plenty of blazing, vindictive anger? A number of the titles on Dark Developments tell the story: "We Are Mean," "Little Fucker," and the curious case of the "Bilocating Dog" (which really isn't a bile-projected rant, but the title sounds damn gritty!). The caustic "Little Fucker,” in particular, finds our hero in acerbic form, like a bulldog with a mouthful of bees as he growls "Wave goodbye, goodbye/ And leave the little fucker there/ To dry up in the sun/ Like a raisin." Here, and throughout the album, the band plays well -- at times, blending into the background to highlight Chesnutt’s narratives; at other times, forcing the leader’s hand with some deft musical pivots. But the focus is clearly on Chesnutt, and in front of such competent and adventurous players, he is free to sing and vent, occasionally sounding like a Southern version of English performance artist John Cooper Clarke; less "punk poet" perhaps, but expelling similar world views with a proclivity toward dripping nastiness.

Dark Developments is an album of contradictions, however. Apart from these aforementioned “cheerful” numbers, Chesnutt does indeed lighten the mood sometimes, with Elf Power and Amorphous Strums providing similarly relaxed accompaniment. The band manages to sound like a peppier Cowboy Junkies on "Mystery," then turns chameleonic on "Teddy Bear," providing a jaunty pop strut to the repeated catchy chorus, then breaking it with perfectly placed atmospherics for the intro and one verse ("Because a gauze of frost is covering the clover/ Muted morning oozing ochre/ Heated honey glomming over/ Animating dark and frozen...a fairytale"). There are, in fact, a number of tracks that show that this album is not merely a doom-and-gloom release -- endearing humor and wry rambling abound. But a big surprise is that some of the strongest tracks on Dark Developments are propelled simply by smart-alec words and a catchy melody.

The funereal crawl “Mad Passion of the Stoic” is nothing short of magic, lyrically, and is a spectacular example of Chesnutt's mastery of poetry mixed with flight of consciousness grab-bagism. Sure, there are a lot of unique wordsmiths out there, but even they'd admit that not everyday you get to hear the following set to a spooky shuffle in song: “O, how wrong things sparkle and entrance alas, sugar cannot sustain one o, so fine forbidden flitting in front coaxing the confident cat off the cozy sofa over the sloping edge into the killing cleansing magma”. The disc ends with the lengthy “Phil the Fiddler,” which reads like the roll call to the cast of a past century play, mentioning characters such as Tom the bootblack, Jack the lad, and the girl in the gingham dress. Again, few could paint such a vivid picture and wring so much emotion out of so little.

Dark Developments is another remarkably fine album from a musician who has been around doing what he does so long that he's often unjustly neglected. More importantly, it furthers the unimaginable argument that Chesnutt -- a man who has already lived more lives than most of us could ever imagine, much less experience, and who should be rightfully basking in the twilight of his career -- may very well just be hitting his stride.

1. Mystery
2. Little Fucker
3. And How
4. Teddy Bear
5. We Are Mean
6. Stop the Horse
7. Bilocating Dog
8. The Mad Passion of the Stoic
9. Phil the Fiddler

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