A paraplegic since 1983 and an acclaimed singer/songwriter since 1988, when he was Officially Discovered by Michael Stipe, Vic Chesnutt has enjoyed a long, prolific, and adventurous career. He’s cut albums with scores of supporting musicians — from countrypolitan iconoclasts Lambchop to jam-band stalwarts Widespread Panic — but no matter how dramatically his sound has evolved, his style is unmistakable, stamped with an acerbic wit and an oversized heart. His real trademark, though, is that reedy, attenuated moan of a voice, a craggy baritone that sometimes morphs into a fragile falsetto. More like sorghum than butter, Chesnutt’s voice may be an acquired taste, but once acquired, it’s addictive. It doesn’t deliver his songs so much as embody them, and it’s the perfect counterpart to his rickety soul/folk arrangements and oddball lyrical bent.
On Ghetto Bells, Chesnutt’s 12th full-length, that miraculous voice receives what may be its most sympathetic backing yet, thanks to post-jazz troubadour Bill Frisell, iconic arranger and multiinstrumentalist Van Dyke Parks, and drummer Don Heffington of Lone Justice and the Jayhawks. (Rounding out this dream lineup is legendary session player Dominic Genova on double bass; Chesnutt’s wife and longtime collaborator, Tina, on electric bass; and newcomer Liz Durrett on backing vocals.) Culled from more than 50 demos under the guidance of producer John Chelew, the 11 tracks on Ghetto Bells are suffused with a quiet intensity; the tempo is slow but never laid-back, stately but never languid. The longest and prettiest song, “Forthright,” clocks in at seven-and-a-half minutes and creeps along like one of those dreams in which you’re trying to run in waist-deep invisible mud; with Frisell’s queasily elegant guitar counterpoint and Heffington’s understated percussion, it develops so effectively, so inevitably, that you’ll want to hit the repeat button as soon as it ends.
Other standouts are less dilatory but no less effective: The Durrett duet “What Do You Mean?” has a koan-like transparency, and “Little Caesar” pits a wheezing accordion against scabrous backward guitars while Chesnutt intones dour and all-too-relevant lines such as “The Holy Roman Emperor bequeathed the crown by birth/And so the public has spoken with resounding clarity/As to who they trust and in what they believe/And they’ve proven that it’s futile to resist the cult of Little Caesar/Do so at your own peril and risk.” True to Chesnutt’s idiosyncratic genius, however, the prevailing mood is one of optimism — a crooked, creaky, cobbled-together optimism, to be sure, but we’ll take our hope where we can find it.
The Fallen Leaf Pages, the fourth full-length from the Los Angeles-based Radar Brothers, is not the kind of record you’ll want to load onto the iPod for treadmill sessions at the gym — unless, of course, you intend to burn as few calories as possible, with ample time to ponder the wisdom of insects, the beauty of our fallen world, and the human capacity for self-delusion. This is the ideal soundtrack not to a stupid workout but to a reflective stroll through the park: Listen as you admire the clouds of gnats hovering in the springtime twilight, the bruise-blue sky, the trembling irises. Like previous Radar Brothers’ albums, Pages was recorded at frontman Jim Putnam’s Skylab studio, and it’s a sprawling, symphonic marvel, tricked out with a wide range of instruments but strangely spacious-sounding, like a desert-parched Pink Floyd or the Beach Boys fronted by Philip K. Dick and relocated to some dystopian colony on Mars. Although Putnam’s lyrics are famously dreary, the layers of chiming guitars and gentle pianos leaven the bleakness, creating a radiant space-folk for backward-looking futurists and gym defectors alike.