Looting the Bins With Chuck Prophet
A walk through the used record bins of some of the country's finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.
"You hear that?"
Standing outside Open Mind Music on an impeccably beautiful sunny San Francisco day, Chuck Prophet points down Market Street, cocks his ear and waits. A few seconds later, a siren blares in the distance.
"Every Tuesday at noon, the city tests their emergency warning system," Prophet explains. "It goes for like ten or fifteen seconds and then it's over, but I like the idea that everyone in this neighborhood hears that. It's a part of anyone's life who lives around here."
Prophet's knack for these kinds of intimate details -- pervasive in his songwriting -- is the mark of the long-time Bay Area denizen. Though he was born and bred in Southern California, the singer-songwriter has lived in San Francisco since joining cult-favorite Americana rockers Green on Red in the mid-1980s as a prodigious 18-year-old guitar talent. After the band dissolved in 1992, Prophet focused his efforts on his burgeoning solo career, recording a string of albums beginning with 1990's Brother Aldo and culminating with Soap and Water, his latest opus released in early October on Yep Roc Records.
"Hanging out in record stores was pretty much what I did growing up," Prophet says as he swings open the door to Open Mind Music and tosses a casual hello to Henry, the store owner. "The Music Box in La Habra, California was where I bought my records. Back then, they usually cost $3.98 and I remember agonizing over the decision on which record to buy every time I went in there. It would take me all week to decide what I was gonna get."
Growing up in Whittier, California, Prophet wasn't too far from either the rock and roll of the Sunset Strip or the surf spots that dot the coast along the Pacific Coast Highway.
"I lived in a neighborhood in Orange County growing up that if you shook a tree, five guitar players would fall out. Everybody played guitar and everyone surfed. It was that type of culture back then," he says. "My girlfriend in the seventh grade bought me Hunky Dory for my birthday. Bowie records were definitely big around my house. I had an older sister was an old-school hipster and we got all the new records when they came out. What's astonishing about Bowie during that time period is the diversity of his albums You can go from Hunky Dory to Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs and then you blink and he's in Philadelphia doing Young Americans. The breadth of the music he created in only about three or four years is just astonishing, especially when compared with what's going on today. And it's not like he fell on his face doing it either. Bowie was big in our house, no doubt about it. Still is."
Like so many other young guitarists, Prophet cut his teeth by playing along to records in his bedroom.
"I learned a lot about playing guitar by listening to old Van Morrison albums," he says, holding up a copy of Morrison's 1967 debut, Blowin' Your Mind. "`T.B. Sheets' is the song I really learned how to play guitar off of. A lot of that double-stop, `Brown-Eyed Girl'-like guitar that I play I mostly picked up from by listening to old Van Morrison stuff. I think a guy named Eric Gale, who was an old jazz guitarist, did the guitar playing on those albums. His playing was big for me as I started playing guitar."
While Van Morrison may not be an influence Prophet readily wears on his sleeve, Bob Dylan certainly is. Whether it's in the detailed imagery of his lyrics, the blues-flecked energy of his guitar playing or his not-so-mainstream nasally voice, it's pretty obvious from his music that Prophet is a Dylanphile.
"We all know he's the master; no one's gonna argue with that," he says, thumbing through the Dylan vinyl. "I really liked Under the Red Sky a lot. No one really gives him credit for the albums he did in the `80s and early `90s. I like Dylan when he's in his devil-may-care place. That's why Dylan is a great live show -- even when he's at his worst, he's incapable of being uninteresting. It's not so much that he's the greatest living American songwriter, though that's part of it certainly. But it's also the ease with which he does it and how cool it is. You never really see Dylan ever work that hard. I admire that about him a lot. I've probably bought all of Dylan's albums at least three times. I enjoy the thrill of getting something I like the second time. I probably own five copies of Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits. Sometimes I buy it just to make myself feel good."
J.J. Cale's Naturally is another record Prophet puts on a pedestal. The Oklahoma troubadour's 1971 debut album followed on the heels of Clapton's version of Cale's "After Midnight," but Naturally does not pander to the blues-rock of Slowhand's successful cover. Instead, Cale issued a sublime, country-rock classic that focuses more on the boogie and less on the bravado.
"Naturally may be the greatest auteur record of all time," Prophet professes. "J.J. wrote all the songs, played on it, put the band together and produced it. I think he may have even engineered a lot of it himself as well `cause it's got this strange sound to it. I love that record `cause J.J Cale never turns his solos up. I always get a lot of shit for not turning my solos up. J.J. is a real abstract expressionist. All of the songs on Naturally are like two-and-a-half minutes long, but it's the perfect record."
Perfection is a concept Prophet returns to time and time again throughout our trip to Open Mind Music, whether it's in regard to Dylan, Cale or Alex Chilton, frontman for The Box Tops and Big Star. Calling Big Star's 1978 classic album Third/Sister Lovers "the perfect marriage of the street and the regal," Prophet remembers the first time Green on Red opened for Chilton's post-Big Star trio at Atlanta's 688 Club in the mid-`80s.
"The 688 was one of those clubs where the back door behind the stage opened up into the parking lot. As we're wrapping up our soundcheck that day, I see this '72 Buick Skylark pull in blowing huge plumes of blue smoke," he recalls. `These three guys roll out of the car and pull a little jazz kit out of the trunk along with a tiny Peavy bass amp and a Fender Super Reverb and set them onstage. Alex reaches in the back of the Super Reverb, pulls out a clean shirt -- his gig shirt -- and takes his other shirt off and stuffs it into the back of the amp. He straps on a harmonica rack, tunes up, clicks his heels four times and just made everything that we did completely forgettable. I can't remember what music I was into at the time -- maybe Tom Verlaine or Neil Young -- but at that moment, it was all about Alex."
With both his new album and the Kelly Willis' Prophet-produced Translated from Love garnering critical praise, Prophet isn't resting on his laurels. With his Mission Express band in tow, Prophet recently returned from a European tour and just embarked on a U.S. tour to support Soap and Water. In between gigs, he's been squeezing in writing sessions with old friend Alejandro Escovedo for a future album.
"Writing with Al has been so much fun," Prophet says with a laugh. "One of things Al and I like to do when we write together is sit down and just tell each other stories and usually a song will appear out of it. If that doesn't work, we turn off all the lights, lie on the ground and put on the Mott the Hoople. Ian Hunter is such a brilliant lyricist. All the Young Dudes is worth the price of admission on the title track alone."
Prophet's wisdom: On songwriting, recording and happiness
Soundbites from the performer, on the road, doing what he loves
As he makes his way across Germany—specifically, from Berlin to Hanover—Chuck Prophet is offering cell phone snippets of life on the road abroad.
His conversation isn't intended to seem like a scrapbook. It's just that the miracle of telecommunication technology isn't on anyone's side this day, regardless of which side of the Atlantic they happen to sit. One moment, Prophet is jubilantly deconstructing the songs—or, more specifically, the inspirations behind them—that make up his fine new album, Soap and Water. The next, the phone line goes dead, to be replaced by a severe recitation in German.
"It's a brave new world, my friend," Prophet says when conversation resumes.
The acclaimed San Francisco producer, writer, guitarist and concert artist began forging a devout indie following more than two decades ago in the Los Angeles garage-psychedelic-Americana band Green on Red. But through a solo recording career that began in 1990, Prophet developed an even more expansive pop sound that was as literate as it was lyrical.
In short, he sang a little like Tom Petty, wrote a lot like Tom Waits and rocked with an onstage abandon all his own, as evidenced generously by a string of Lexington concerts after the release in 2000 of his album The Hurting Business.
"It's my job, as a songwriter, to have my antenna up so I can look around for the right details," Prophet said. "And to be perfectly honest, I'm not always in the right head-space to wrestle every idea that floats by to the ground. I don't have that kind of energy."
Prophet compared the process of crafting an album from the ideas he does wrestle with to "honking your horn in a tunnel until you get bored."
"It's like you're spending your life chasing after this thrill," he said. "There's a buzz that comes from writing a song you get really excited about. But the buzz never lasts long. You're always left wondering where the next song will come from."
Kelly Willis, the veteran country-Americana artist whose newest album, Translated From Love, was produced by Prophet, says, "Chuck has always been involved when it comes to music. I have always really, really loved and connected with his instincts for songs. He is one of these people that live and breathes music and just instinctively knows what to do with a song."
Rather than elaborate further on the general discourse of songwriting, Prophet said he'd talk about specific songs he has penned, to offer more exact examples of how his pop smarts take on a tune.
What a great idea. Then the phone goes dead again and a recorded German scolding returns. A third call is placed, and renewed conversation accelerates. After all, another foreign tongue-lashing could break in at any moment.
The first tune Prophet detailed was Doubter Out of Jesus, a Soap and Water song that is a study of conversion more social than religious. It struts to an electric drum groove and swells with, of all things, the support singing of a Nashville children's choir.
"We were near the end of a recording session," he said. "Everybody had packed up the drums and basses and everything. A bunch of us were in the control room talking about what the album was missing. So I went through my notebook and pulled this song out. We just jammed on a riff using a drum machine. The whole thing was a freak accident. But when we brought in the children later on, everything went to another level."
Prophet also was asked to discuss Soap and Water's finale, Happy Ending.
"I was just fingerpicking around on the guitar on that one," he said. "I started thinking of it as the closing credits for a movie. I thought, `This is great. I have the last song for the album. Now all I need is the first one."
As varied and curious as the creative process can be in crafting a song, designing a new life for his music every night onstage can be equally exciting. For Prophet, though, the rewards are numerous. Life on the road offers a chance to hook up with a combustible performance persona that his records seldom reveal in full. But there is a personal bonus as well. Prophet's longtime keyboardist, Stephanie Finch, is also his wife.
"Performance is kind of my addiction, I suppose. But in terms of addictions, it's the healthiest one I've ever had. I'm lucky to travel and hammer things out onstage with Stephanie. There's always something going on out on the bandstand.
"You know, people are always talking about the (music) industry being in the doldrums, that nobody is buying records anymore. For me, I feel like I'm just getting the hang of this. In that respect, I've never been happier."
At the tender age of 17, Chuck Prophet (yes, that's his real last name) began his career as a guitar-slinger for `80s roots-rockers Green on Red. The kid was a total miscreant; he had seen the inside of enough loony bins and rehab centers to make Bukowski proud. But he could play guitar - really play guitar.
Prophet, now 43, has been a solo artist for 15 years and clean `n' sober for 10. Much like Dylan and Neil Young, his discography is spotty. Prophet has scored two minor hits ("Summertime Thing" and "No Other Love"), but he's also lost his way in several fleeting trends.
That said, Soap and Water, Prophet's new disc, features the singer and axeman doing what he does best: heart-on-your-sleeve, blood-in-your-mouth rock and roll redemption. On, for example, "Would You Love Me?," Prophet doesn't aspire; he soars. "Sittin' in a movie, staring at a screen," he sings. "They're dragging Jesus from the town. It don't look good to me/If I had a bucket, or better yet, a spoon/I'd go down to that river, baby. I'd bring that river home to you."
In "Let's Do Something Wrong," Prophet turns Alex-Chilton-strange when he employs an all-boy Methodist choir to sing the refrain, "Let's do something wrong, let's do something stupid."
Prophet is renowned for his live performances, but tonight's show at the Beachland is guaranteed to deliver more: the best songs of Prophet's 25-year career.
Singer-songwriter Likes A Continual Challenge
Inspiration can come in many forms for the receptive rock musician, but it's a fairly safe bet that very few of them have ever milked any hit songs from jet lag. Leave it to Chuck Prophet - former Green on Red frontman and longtime solo roots-rock sonic texturalist - to transform an experience that most of humanity attempts to minimize into a creative opportunity.
"When I was touring behind Age of Miracles, I did come back from one of the European tours and I did this thing where I resisted adjusting my body clock so I'd keep waking up at four in the morning which is like noon over there," says Prophet. "That's the magic hour, according to the monks. That's where you're closest to God right there. And I'd play around with songs at the kitchen table."
Prophet's pre-dawn kitchen excursions netted him a trio of interesting songs that didn't seem to be connected to anything he had worked on previously, so he set them aside. He then took the subsequent year to ponder a life-altering decision - whether or not to continue his role as a working musician.
"I was trying to figure out if there was anything else I wanted to do besides make records and drive around in a van," says Prophet with a wry laugh. "I couldn't really think of anything. I demoed some songs with some friends of mine and we got excited about it and said, `Let's just make the record like this, let's do it.'"
Although some might consider Prophet's year to be a casualty of writer's block, it really was just a period of introspection and reassessment, something that he's done throughout his career. Once he realized that he was meant to continue down a musical path, the songs began to flow freely again and he was well on his way to the completion of Soap and Water, his latest album and first for Yep Roc, his new label.
Oddly enough, Prophet's lengthy period of self-examination resulted in a group of songs that he characterizes as the polar opposite of that.
"Sometimes, if I look back at the older records, in a way, I remember every last detail, and in another way I look back and think, `Who was that guy?'" he says. "So I think maybe these songs might be a little less introspective somehow. I think the world's come in a little bit more. It's hard to say."
For Prophet, there were a couple of points of departure in the creation of Soap and Water. The album was recorded in two locales: first in Prophet's home base of San Francisco and then wrapped up in Nashville. Veteran roots producer Brad Jones worked on the album all through the process in a co-producer role, a situation Prophet hadn't opened himself up to for quite some time.
"I met Brad a few times and he got excited about the songs, so he came out and worked with us," says Prophet. "We thought we would go back to Nashville and work on the back end of the record and I was thrilled to do it. I enjoy myself in Nashville and I have a lot of friends there that I can borrow equipment from and a lot of couches I can sleep on. There's a kind of strange community where people have come from all over and on the edges of it. Besides country music, there's a fringe element that's really pretty cool. I like Nashville."
Prophet also liked Jones enough to accept him as an outside producer, something he hasn't embraced in his solo career. As he explains, that notion doesn't necessarily spring from his unwillingness to work with a producer.
"I used to joke that I was the best producer that I'd ever worked with in my price range," says Prophet with a laugh. "In Green on Red, I worked with a sideman, and I worked with guys like Jim Dickinson and Glyn Johns and some heavy hitters. And on this record, I wanted to be free to spend more time on the other side of the glass and less time in the control room. Brad Jones ended up being a real complement to my style. I paint with a really wide brush and Brad can get in there into the details and keep me between the lanes, in a gentle way. He's a no-nonsense Midwestern guy; he's not one for emotional outbursts."
One area where Jones was most beneficial to Soap and Water's eventual outcome was in securing a children's choir for a couple of the album's tracks. Prophet had a particular sound in mind and Jones offered what turned out to be the perfect solution.
"I think immediately most people think of gospel singers and I tried to explain, `No, I want it more like a high school production of Godspell,'" says Prophet. "The thing about the kids is that was an exact interpretation of what I was hearing in my head. The kids just sing, they don't try to sound like they're singing. They just hit the note. They go straight to the note, and they don't fuck around. They added another level to the record that I really like."
Although Soap and Water seems to incorporate just about every sonic characteristic that Prophet has explored over the course of his career - rootsy Americana swagger, electronic folk experimentalism, Stonesy blues chug, pop balladeering - he insists that there was nothing overtly preconceived about the songs on the album. As always, Prophet is just doing best what he's doing at the moment.
"I think that I do have a wide range of feels as a musician," he says. "Coming out of a country/rock or alternative country reality, I've been accused of working in a lot of cross-morphed genres, but it seems pretty normal to me. I think one of the reasons people play country rock is that it's just really easy to play. My heroes are people like David Bowie; I can only imagine David Bowie driving around in limos in America on one of his glam rock tours and hearing the O'Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and saying, `Man, we've got to do this shit!' and making a record in Sigma Sound in Philadelphia and just stepping up to the mic and owning it and winning everybody over. I think it's fun to get out of your bag and out of your comfort zone."
While Soap and Water clearly exhibits all Prophet's best qualities as a performer and songwriter, it's equally apparent that he's not rehashing old glories or reclaiming old ground for the sake of a new album. Prophet has always been happiest when he's challenging himself, and that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon.
"If there was something about a song that I felt was somewhere I'd never been before - it just might be a small detail or a guitar lick or some sort of a figure or something in the lyric or point of view - those are the songs that when I'm writing, I get excited about," he says. "I think those are the songs I ended up putting on the record. Of course, if you stand back far enough and squint, you're like, `I don't know, it just kind of sounds like a Tom Petty record.' I don't see what's so strange about it. It sounds pretty normal to me. But in my way, those are the songs that keep me interested enough to wrestle them all the way to the ground. You know, ideas are pretty much free and they're everywhere and I get them all the time but I don't always have the energy to turn them all into songs."
The album called Soap and Water opens dirty, with a shambling, Stones-like riff-rocker called "Freckle Song." The lecherous come-on segues right into the atmospheric, tenderly open-hearted balladry of "Would You Love Me?"
That's Chuck Prophet, who has forged a particularly rich and hard-to-pin-down solo career since his days with Green on Red, the great American indie-rock band of the `80s. On these songs about love and the lack of it - to paraphrase the John Cassavetes quote in the liner notes - Prophet is sardonic and hopeful, moody and soulful. Given the mesmerizing blend of warmth and chill - he even uses a children's chorus to subtle but still-audacious effect on some of these very adult songs - it's no wonder that the "Happy Ending" that concludes the album is anything but simple.
On the Town with Chuck Prophet
Chuck Prophet, a former member of famed cosmic rock duo Green on Red, has just released his eighth solo album, "Soap and Water" (Yep Roc). The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter recently made his acting debut in the independent film "Revolution Summer" and signed a deal with Chronicle Books, which next summer will release "Shoulda Stayed in School - Road Diaries From the Rock `n' Roll Trenches." We asked the longtime Duboce Triangle resident for a tour of his favorite neighborhood haunts. (Prophet plays the Make-Out Room tonight).
Golden Produce, 172 Church St. "It's a family-run produce market right across from Safeway on Market. If you like pears, they carry about eight different kinds. I love the folks that run it - three generations from Cambodia. Golden Produce has got soul."
Jack's Laundry, 196 Noe St. "I just adore the woman who runs this laundry. She always laughs when I ask, `Which one of you is Jack?' Aside from the usual dry cleaning, wash and fold stuff, she's a great seamstress - mends, hems and puts love and care into everything she does. In fact, she hand-sewed each patch on the Green on Red trucker hats. Bonus points for overnight work, too."
Rosamunde Sausages, 545 Haight St. "Tuesday is burger day. It gets slammed in there and they can get irritable behind the counter if you don't order properly. So get there early or you'll be handed a sausage. Wait in the Toronado Bar next door, get a real draft root beer and drop some quarters in the jukebox that's stocked with `deep cuts' for days."
Cliff's Variety, 479 Castro St. "I almost forgot what I came there for: I found myself staring at a unicorn pencil sharpener when a friendly clerk asked if there was anything he could help me with. I was directed to the fabric annex next door and left with a couple yards of Velcro for my pedal board and a spare key for the touring van."
Peacock Music, 2200 15th St. "Maybe you just want to replace one string on that banjo that never gets played or pick up a bow for your kid's violin. OK, so you'll never be Pete Seeger. If all else fails, go on and tune all four strings on that banjo up to one note and play it with a bow. The owner, George, told me recently his church choir could use a baritone singer. I was deeply flattered. Might take him up on that someday."
Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight St. "In Holland, where I'm touring right now, they've turned churches into venues. In San Francisco, they've turned one of the last bowling alleys into the Amoeba record store. It's only the largest new-and-used record store in the nation."
Philz Coffee, 3101 24th St. "Located in a funky storefront at the corner of 24th and Folsom, each cup of Philz Coffee is ground and made by hand. Phil himself is a real character: an expansive personality, compact, fedora-sporting, mustachioed bundle of energy. You can't get a latte or a mochachino, but you can get one of the many painstakingly blended combos that Phil has perfected in his 30-plus years in the business. Don't be surprised if he pulls out a long spoon, turns to one of the gals there, spoon feeds her some foam off the top and says, completely seriously, `Don't swallow it down, swirl it around, make love to it.' The mint leaf garnish is a nice touch."
Schauplatz Clothing & Furniture, 791 Valencia St. "I'm a lanky guy. I have what you might call an elongated torso. It's hard to find jackets that fit. Some days, the thrift store gods are smiling more than others: I found a nice sport coat in there recently, and the fellow behind the counter in his German accent said, `Oh yes, very good choice, this just came in, 42 long don't stay long.' Their stuff is always clean and wrinkle free. Note to other vintage clothiers: Go ahead and splurge for some dry cleaning. Tack it on to the price if you have to. Thrift stores can be hit and miss. Takes someone with an acute eye to run it. It's a gift. Some people have the gift. These guys always dig up good stuff."
P.O. Plus, 584 Castro St. "This is the mailing joint in my hood. It's a FedEx, DHL, UPS and USPS hub all in one. Ahmad is the man there, a good guy. I like it when I'm done with my packages or whatever, he'll ring his bell on the counter and shout, `Next customer!' even when there's no one there."
El Tonayense taco truck, 22nd and Harrison streets. "Tommy Guerrero turned me on to these guys. I hired them to cater our gig at the Make-Out Room. Yes, you heard right. Free tacos for all my friends! I'm a carne asada man myself, but they do a killer al pastor, which is sort of like a Mexican doner kebab. It's slow-cooked pork, thinly sliced off the spit with a large knife."
80'S ROOTS-ROCK SURVIVOR NOW HITTING HIS PEAK
(****) A decade ago, it looked like Chuck Prophet was finished. The former golden boy of seminal American alt-country, retro-rock stars Green On Red was hooked on crack and unravelling fast. Now, fully detoxed, Prophet has just made his acting debut in the cult movie Revolution Summer, and with his eighth solo album turned in the best work of his career. The rockier songs are reminiscent of late-`80s Rolling Stones and new wave-era Tom Petty. But best of all is Would You Love Me?, the most elegiac country-rock ballad since Ryan Adams's Gold.
San Francisco-based songwriter on killer form
(****) Back from the Green On Red reunion and studio time with Kelly Willis and Alejandro Escovedo, Prophet has been the much in demand lately. But having long dropped the sub-Dylanisms of his early work, its his solo career thats thriving. Soap And Water is his most satisfying album yet. The range of styles is impressive, from the pale hip hop of Something Stupid to the title tracks murky Southern funk and the swamp-blues of A Womans Voice. But he does the fucked-up ballad thing expertly, too, even drafting in a childrens Christian choir for Would You Love Me.
The San Franciscan guitar slinger's persuasive eighth solo album
(****) Plucked from Berkeley obsurity in the mid-`80s by psychedelic cowboys Green On Red, Chuck Prophet was always a gifted rapier to lead singer Dan Stuart's yeoman bludgeon. His Richard Thompson-indebted Telecaster squalls have subsequently decorated a litany of creditable solo albums of which this latest may well be the finest. Recorded in Nashville with innumerable guests, Soap And Water runs the gamut of Prophet's influences, from Bob Dylan (Naked Ray) to Alex Chilton (Let's Do Something Wrong) and the Stones (Soap And Water), all of it delievered with a quixotic swagger and Prophet's declamatory sneer of a voice. His quicksilver fretwork still impresses - especially on the Television-like stomper Freckle Song, though the stand-out track is the burnished, redemptive ballad Would You Love Me, replete with a Methodist children's choir and a counterpoint melody that could melt the stoniest heart.
Chuck Prophet soaks up the Stonesy vibe on his excellent new CD
Though the guitarist's narco-blasted days in indie-rock band Green on Red are long behind him, there's still something elegantly and acerbically wasted about Chuck Prophet. This collection of roots rock is Stonesy loose, which is also to say that it's Stonesy tight. The lumbering A Woman's Voice aside, Soap and Water's tracks impress ‹ from the sex-drenched Freckle Song to Let's Do Something Wrong, where his Tom Petty-ish vocals are puckishly augmented by a kids' choir on the lyrics "Let's do something wrong/Let's do something stupid." A-
Why all this Prophet of doom, Chuck?
IT has been three years since his last album, Age Of Miracles, but Chuck Prophet hasn't exactly been sitting around.
For one thing, there's his own new album, possibly his best, called Soap And Water.
He has also produced a new album from Kelly Willis ("We jumped off some cliffs together!"), reformed and toured Europe with his former band Green On Red, collaborated with Alejandro Escovedo an a new album, made his big screen acting debut in a film called Revolution Summer, and worked on the soundtrack of the Sundance Film Festival hit, Teeth.
Surprisingly, then, Chuck talks of a "crisis of faith" after Age Of Miracles.
"We toured for a month too long with that record," he contends. His current touring band, though, which he'll be bringing to Club Academy this weekend, is, he enthuses, "lighter on their feet than any band I've worked with before".
Speaking of which, a lot of people were surprised when alt-country rockers Green On Red reformed a few months back "It took us by surprise too," he laughs.
"I suppose we did it as a kind of dare, but I was surprised, I think we all were, at the ease with which it came together. Might we do it again? I wouldn't be against it at all."
The project with Alejandro Escovedo also "just sort of happened. He asked me down one weekend to try writing some songs together and we've ended up writing a whole record.
"It's sort of like our joint musical biography. There's a lot of real characters in there."
Carving an independent path through country, soul and rock
(****) The eighth solo studio album from Californian singer, songwriter and guitarist Chuck Prophet oozes character and confidence. Prophet's delectable guitar work and world-weary but sharply expressive vocals, along with backing from his own outfit the Mission Express and guests the Spinto Band, ensure that these tracks are packed with rich, flavoursome detail. Brad Jone's intelligent production has brought a dustily textured finish to the album; this brooding, sun baked sound is the perfect compliment to Prophet's casually memorable way with words. But despite an overriding sense of direction and coherence, SOAP AND WATER never once threatens to fall back on basic sylistic similarity to keep its twelve tracks knitted together. Each song brings with it a genuine feeling of discovery, from the witty, infectious country-rock opener Freckle Song with it's irresistible twang and punchy rhythm section, to Happy Ending, a subtly shaded and atmospheric rootsy number that provides a gently philosophical conclusion.
The most innovative moment of all comes with All Over You, a sublime blend of heady dance beats and earthy guitar-based Americana. Led by Prophet's captivating vocals - nonchalant one minute, exhilarating the next - it layers into the mix a bewildering number of additional ingredients, from ominous strings and twinkly percussive effects to the improbably successful use of a children's church choir. There is simplicity too; in the form of the dreamy, sinuous ballad Would You Love Me, and its delicate arrangement featuring distant, angelic backing voices and haunting, understated farmonica. A dryly effective female guest vocalist joins Prophet to exchange the clever lyrics of Soap an Water, an angular blues-rock foot-tapper, while taut blues rhythms also form the basis of the intricate but exuberant Down Time, a hugely enjoyable paean to getting away from it all. `A woman's voice can drug you like an AM radio/Like a motorcycle preacher/Like a Sunday far from home', these vocals warn Prophet on A Woman's Voice, at times tapping into a near Dylan-esque drawl, The song's effect is hypnotic, driven by a smouldering slide guitar groove, and its strolling pace builds to a euphoric, bluesy sing-along chorus.
Chuck Prophet's last solo album may have appeared three years ago - he has since toured Europe with a revived incarnation of his former band Green On Red, collaborated with Kelly Willis and made his cinematic acting debut - but the wait has proved worthwhile. Charming, fiercely imaginative and brilliantly executed, this is contemporary roots-rock of the highest quality. A European tour is planned in support of SOAP AND WATER during September and October, which will surely demonstrate the vitality of these songs in a live setting.
(*****) Even in this iPod era, albums can be journeys of discovery. When I started out on Soap and Water I was armed with a huge admiration for San Francisco-based guitarist and songwriter Chuck Prophet, his work with seminal alt. everything band Green on Red, and his large body of solo work. Soap and Water, however, seemed cloaked in obscurity and the music was oddly rootless. A few dozen plays later and there is not a track I'd change - though I might argue a backing vocal here or a guitar lick there. This is a monumental album of constant surprise, chilled intelligence and quietly assured song writing skill, singing, playing and production. Prophet has said it was inspired by wayward rock icon Alex Chilton, but I also hear Randy Newman's caustic amusement at the human condition, especially on the epic New Kingdom. Wonderful, but time is required.
JUNGLE JIM AND THE VOODOO TIGER
Nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Dwelling on the glories of the past, whatever the decade currently in fashion, pales before the glories of the present with its paradigm shifts and all-access Internet. One thing I do miss in the recent and current decade is "characters": that is, people who don't fall into types; folks who by dint of intelligence, mixed with experience and a unique vision of the world, carve out a personal place in it—men like Jim Dickinson.
It would be easy to write him off as a mere roots-rock legend. The legend would start at the Sound of Memphis Studio in the late Sixties, where, with Charley Freeman, Tommy McClure, and Sammy Creason, he formed the rhythm section known as the "Dixie Flyers." The Flyers moved to Miami, Florida, as the Atlantic Records house band backing such artists as Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and Jerry Jeff Walker. After leaving the Flyers, Dickinson returned to Memphis, and began a producing career, working with Ry Cooder and Big Star. His work with the latter no doubt appealed to later clients like Green On Red, and The Replacements. And, oh yeah, Dickinson recorded "Wild Horses" with the Rolling Stones.
In true "character" fashion, these facts don't begin to sum up the man. You might be surprised that he studied drama at Baylor University—unless you thought about it for a minute. He has released two solo records before this as James Luther Dickinson, thirty years apart (take that, T Bone). The more recent, 2002's Free Beer Tomorrow, contains a song, "Ballad of Billy and Oscar," about an imagined meeting between Billy the Kid and Oscar Wilde, written by the art critic Dave Hickey. Starting to get the picture? Pigeonholing just don't work here.
Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger continues in the spirit of both the legend and the character. Having raised his own band (sons Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars) he employs them here on a romp through tunes that suit his style. One of the signs of a true character is that they can take a song that has been done to death, like Terry Fell's "Truck Drivin' Man," and inject new life into it—and not just by adding a hardly heard verse. Rarely writing his own songs, Dickinson always includes a Bob Frank tune, here opening with a rendition of "Redneck, Blue Collar," a vision of the workingman as hard to pin down as James Luther himself. The late Eddie Hinton helps Dickinson and company define Southern soul with his "Can't Beat the Kid." Chuck Prophet, one of the few new characters to emerge in the last twenty years, contributes a tender ballad, "Somewhere Down the Road."
With a voice that is more gruff attitude than mellifluous melisma, Jim Dickinson demonstrates that attitude is enough if you have the goods to back it up. Ask fellow characters like Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Keith Richard—they will testify that the man has the goods in spades.
Alejandro Escovedo Trio/ Chuck Prophet; March 8, 2007; High Noon Saloon
Alejandro was just in Madison in November, and it was a great show. But since I am one of those people who think he's good, not great (I know, blasphemy), I probably would have skipped this show. Except that, like so many times before, I couldn't miss the opening act. Perhaps only the Pernice Brothers have a better track record than Alejandro for choosing openers, and they kind of blew it with the love `em or hate `em Elvis Perkins. Past shows have featured David Garza, the Drive-by Truckers, Jon Dee Graham, and Jon Langford, while the last show was opened by an un-missable solo Robbie Fulks. Tonight he went one better with a solo Chuck Prophet, who is usually thought of as a great electric guitar player with a stellar band.
Prophet ranks third on my "cool list" behind only Andrew Bird and Joe Terry, and tonight he made a strong case for moving up. He claimed he hadn't played a solo acoustic show in over a year, but it was hard to believe him as his amazing opening set just got better and better. I sat there the entire time with the biggest, goofiest smile on my face. He introduced a song from his last record Age of Miracles by saying it addressed one of the biggest questions of the universe. Suddenly serious, he added that he wasn't sure we were going to be able to handle it before playing the delightfully goofy "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)." Asking questions like "Who put the bop in the bop shebop shebop?" or "Who put the ram in the ram a lama ding dong?" Infectious and ridiculous, it was anything but profound.
Most songs came from his last two solo records, No Other Love (2002) and Miracles (2004), both of which are pretty amazing. He opened with the syrupy sweet "Just to See You Smile," and included "I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See." The latter included an uncomfortably hilarious lecture on premature ejaculation. He finished his far-too-short set with the modest hit "Summertime Thing" which got regular play on Triple M back when I still listened to the radio. Thankfully it seemed everyone was as enchanted as I was and the crowd-demanded encore brought him back. Since I was right in the front row and very visible, I had resisted the temptation to video even though I was dying to. When he said that the last song would be "After the Rain," I couldn't resist any longer. He told me after the set that he had been on his best behavior, "I saw that camera," he said with a smile.
I hadn't had much sleep this week and in comparison to Chuck's giddy set, Alejandro just made me sleepy. Every song was at least five minutes long, and even though they were all lovely and Susan Voelz's violin enchanting, I was ready for the show to be over long before it was. He covered all the fan favorites from "Rosalie" to "Castanets" to "I Got Drunk" (a personal favorite of mine), but it wasn't until he called Chuck up for the encore that it really became interesting. They have been writing songs together recently, and these were two of the new ones. Alejandro handed his guitar over to Chuck, and directed the songs, leaning into the microphone for his parts, leaning back when he wanted Chuck to sing, all the while allowing space for the violin and guitar to solo. The song was created right before our eyes, and that was a pretty cool thing to see.
Bottom Line: start time 8 pm end time 11:00 pm
Worth the drive? it's not every night that I smile like that for an entire set
Reason to move Chuck up the cool list? that orange blazer for one
Reason Joe Terry doesn't have to worry? he's Joe Terry, Andrew Bird on the other hand should watch his back
Chuck Prophet covers a wide range of musical ground on his latest outing. In the opening tracks alone, we go from loud and dirty rock ("Automatic Blues"), to cross-generational Mind Games psych-pop ("Age of Miracles"), to the hip-hop inflected, hyper-melodic nod to the history of pop culture idioms ("You Did") - which if it doesn't answer, at least raises many more musical questions, including: "Who put the ram in the ram-a-lama ding-dong?...Who raised the roof and never made a sound?...Who cleared the static and made it sing? You did." Prophet seems to have a fondness for throwing many different people and various sounds/styles/attitudes together just to see what happens. Dig the transformations throughout a cut like "Pin A Rose On Me." The magic of such experimentation is no mistake; Prophet knows what he is doing. The results are enchanting, particularly the Spector of Wilson that drives a tune like "Just to See You Smile," or the lilting groove of "You Got Me Where You Want Me." I never did believe in miracles, and I'm beginning to wonder why.
The back cover of his new album, "Soap and Water", pictures Chuck Prophet in hipster-bohemian uniform (bedhead hairdo, canvas sneakers) haunting an empty laundromat. It's a fitting image for his songs of poisoned love, in which every rake inevitably gets his lonely comeuppance - even Elvis Presley, who watches his female fans toss him their undergarments only to tell himself, "They'll forget me when I'm gone."
Smart-ass rocker crafts another #1 Record
Every aspiring guitarist who taped a copy of Big Star's Radio City went on to start his own band. That's conventional wisdom, but what about the misfits who scrounged a burn of Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert or treasured a bootleg LP of his late-`70s Elektra demos? On Soap and Water, former Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet answers that question. It's a catchy, accurate recasting of Chilton's terrified insouciance and sickening pop modulations, and if it occasionally descends into pastiche, it scrubs behind Chilton's ears with a loving touch. Prophet might not sing as snidely as the Memphian did on such numbers as Sherbert's "Hey! Little Child" (referenced here on "Heart Beat"), but he adds complaisant female vocals to an ingenious series of mocking guitar moves.
"Down Time" rocks along in the jaunty manner of the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover" and fades before it has time to gather momentum. Intelligent enough to take pleasure in the basics but too impatient to stick with anything for very long, Prophet sounds like the kind of smart-ass who doesn't worry about earning your respect. This means he gets away with lines like "The women threw their panties/And the women threw their bras/Elvis hung his head/And said, `They'll forget me when I'm gone.' " He affects wisdom on "Small Town," a gorgeous meditation on big-city temptations-specifically, Prophet doesn't want anyone to mess with his sister, who leaves town with only "a Realistic stereo and a phone that doesn't ring" for evidence. Best of all is the title track, a two-chord stomp that finds Prophet trafficking in the cheap oppositions big brother Alex perfected 30 years ago. "Dry hump/Wet nurse/Loose change/Tight purse," he sings, sounding like a man who wears clean underwear but is scared to change his dirty socks.
Chuck Prophet: "Nearer To You," Betty Harris. "From the aptly titled collection Soul Perfection. Or was it, Soul Imperfection? Greasy and Funky? You bet. Dramatic, too. Betty Harris sang with unbridled desire—she ate the mic and chewed right through the tape with her white hot yearning. She sang like she had a capo around her throat, milking just a few words, wringing `em out—as if she doesn't need words at all. Betty feeds you and leaves you hungry for more. And with the Meters backing her up, (particularly Leo Nocentelli playing the bent guitar fills around her pleas for love), those singles she cut in the 60's with Bert Berns and later with Alan Toussaint were pure unrequited, untamed, longing at it's best. It doesn't get any more heart-wrenching than "Nearer to You." Like a mystery I could never solve—I'll just have to keep listening.
Singer and songwriter Chuck Prophet has been ahead of the curve since his days with the devilishly cagey Green On Red. His latest solo album, the delightful Soap and Water, is another dance away from anything obvious, done so casually that he makes originality seem simple.
Prophet is the ultimate alternative hybridist. He uses rock `n' roll as a foundation, tossing in tricks and treats snipped from all manner of musical genres. Smart arrangements play with cliches - orchestras, children's choirs - yet somehow remain original, big and sweeping, embellishing the songs instead of overpowering them.
The heart of Soap and Water is Prophet's skill as lyricist. He is a manipulator of metaphor and novelistic detail, a master at the art of making unease seem soothing through his congenial singing and wry, subtle sense of humor. Understatement has rarely been overstated so well.