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Brute | Co-Balt (Evangeline)
Another year, another Vic Chesnutt record. Dependable in quantity if not quality as the great British rainfall and drenched summer, 'Co-Balt' sees him reuniting with jam band ordinaire, Widespread Panic, for a follow up to their surprisingly good debut, 'Nine High a Pallet'. Now Vic always gets my hopes up. You see him in concert and he performs a string of new wondersongs, leaving the audience often gaping and awed and then a few month's later an album comes out and none of the songs are there, their places taken by lightweight doppelgangers instead. So it's a huge relief to find that here, in perhaps the most inauspicious of places (for Vic fans anyhow) we find his best album in years. Crunching guitars introduce the first track and it's vituperative Vic at his best, snarling out lines with bile and a wink. Things really take off on Expiration Day, a slightly weird metaphor for his own musical efforts ("I'm a machinist at the Springfield armory / Just slightly ahead of my time / But I don't make much money / So I sell eggs and chickens on the side). It starts with an almost pastiched Springsteen harmonica flutter and then Vic begins crooning in that soft, vulnerable voice of his and you're hooked. The song itself is a statement of intent and, as the verses build, Vic's singing gathers intensity until he's screaming out "I'll shave metal until I die" reaching the last chorus, a resolute "But I feel it is important / What I do upon my lathe / I pledge to do this detail work / Until my expiration day." It's totally whacked out, haunting, crazed and affecting at the same time. It's what music should be and it's only the second track. The next track, Adirondacks is possibly even better. From the propulsive opening notes of John Herman's piano you know you are in the presence of a classic. The piano punches the song along on a gorgeous groove and towards a chorus melody that, no matter how cynical and disenchanted you are, will make you smile, Vic gleefully chanting "Grinding ax / in the Adirondacks" and though it's not immediately obvious what he's on about it's still guaranteed to conjure up images of sheer backwoods inbred horror. One of those songs that just sweeps you up with it. It's also very promising, after the last couple of albums (which featured scraps of songs), to see Vic writing lots of lyrics, long flowing lines and compellingly cracked narratives. The rest of the album, despite a couple of nondescript rockers, has many more treasures, not least among them the rolling barrelhouse gait of You're With Me Now, the crooned disconsolate melancholia and abjection of Cutty Sark and Morally Challenged, a skewed southern sing-a-long which gets extra points for being perhaps the only song in the history of rock music to name-check W.H. Auden. It's just great to hear Vic having so much fun and it comes through in his performance, the way he really sings on this record like he did on his first couple, his voice soaring majestically. The album ends as it began, with two great songs, the former, All Kinds, an ambient funk homage to diversity whose first verse ("I am a lonely guy / I sit around the house getting high / My only friends are dealers and dolers / All we have in common are psychoactive compounds / Sitting in their sad living rooms / That smell like stale mounds of semen") is something we can all relate to. The title track finishes things off on an epic ten minute scale, kicking off with the breathtaking description, "The sky went Papal purple as they started plowing forth" and rolling through several verses of highly attuned writing to a shimmering conclusion where "They performed precisely as mathematicians dictated." An unexpected triumph then, unsuspected and unguessed, the frisson of collaboration has driven Vic Chesnutt to produce his best album since 'West of Rome'.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002