heyday of the Stones, but also vintage Cheap Trick.
Let Freedom Ring (Yep Roc)
You've got to hand it to Chuck Prophet. While the rest of the world was panicking about the swine flu outbreak, the San Francisco-based songwriter was holed up in a sound studio in Mexico City, recording what ranks as the most staggering rock record of 2009. From the blistering opening chords of "Sonny Liston's Blues" to the plaintive refrain of "Leave the Window Open," Prophet has produced a suite of songs whose exuberance will call to mind not just the mid-`70s heyday of the Stones, but also vintage Cheap Trick.
Prophet's voice is pure Southern California drawl, and his Stratocaster seems never to have met a lick it couldn't shred. But what stands out here is Prophet's ability to survey the moral landscape of America, as the nation faces up to the brutal economic hangover of the go-go Bush years. "Let there be markets, let them run wild," he sings, on the rousing title track, "as the sisters of mercy just laugh/All the lost brothers can drink themselves blind/While good fortune breaks hard work in half." Not even the shimmering chorus can blunt the sting of that sort of truth. What's most remarkable about this album is that Prophet has told the ugly truth about our imperial ills and made it impossible for us not to sing along.—Steve Almond
Let Freedom Ring
After some 25 years of Americana-soaked sonic adventures, first with his band Green on Red and then as a solo singer-songwriter, Chuck Prophet should get a dollar every time anyone anywhere uses the term "roots rock." On Let Freedom Ring, Prophet proves that it's possible to work up a piston-pumping batch of tunes that incorporate touches of blues, soul, country, and rock while still maintaining a sharp lyrical pen. Many of the songs here walk the line between detail-oriented narrative and imagistic musing, while Prophet's deadpan delivery drives the whole thing home. The title track finds him taking on a tone (both vocally and lyrically) somewhere between Dave Alvin and James McMurtry, but often there's a vague Ray Davies quality to both Prophet's voice and delivery, suggesting that perhaps his storytelling abilities come from somewhere outside the usual Americana toolkit. If you're in the market for an unpretentious, organic-sounding album of roots-rocking tracks that completely avoid the genre's usual tropes, you might be inclined to Let Freedom Ring.
Storyteller with a sharp eye for detail and a deft sense of character
It sounds like a collection of disasters that could befall a character from one of his songs: When Chuck Prophet went to Mexico City to make this record, he encountered a pandemic, an earthquake, and an antiquated studio. But with the grit and resilience that have typified his work since his days in Green on Red, Prophet soldiered through. The result is "Let Freedom Ring!,"another solid collection of his sturdy, rootsy rock `n' roll.
Prophet is a storyteller with a sharp eye for detail and a deft sense of character. His ninth solo album nods to Bob Dylan ("Hot Talk," "You and Me Baby"), Randy Newman ("Barely Exist"), and John Mellencamp ("American Man"), with a bit of Texas roadhouse blues thrown in ("Where the Hell Is Henry?"). It doesn't delve quite as deeply as "The Hurting Business" or "Soap & Water," but as always, Prophet's stories ring true.
Chuck Prophet's ¡Let Freedom Ring! Doesn't Disappoint
Lonesome Onry and Mean: Chuck Prophet's ¡Let Freedom Ring! Doesn't Disappoint
By William Michael Smith in Lonesome Onry and MeanTue., Oct. 13 2009 @ 12:30PM
"American man in the laundry pile/ With the rain check claims and the skateboard child" - Chuck Prophet, "American Man"
We admit to being full-fledged, card-carrying members of the Chuck Prophet Party, but it still took Lonesome, Onry and Mean longer than usual to get the ears and head wrapped around Prophet's chaotic new Yep Roc Records album ¡Let Freedom Ring! The album may have the widest stylistic scope Prophet has ever laid down, although CP is known up front for going all over the rock and roll map in search artistic fuel.
But, as always happens with Prophet's records, the separate parts of the thing eventually come together, the wholeness of the disparate parts reveal themselves and, one day riding down the freeway with the stereo blasting, the brain says to the body, "What an album."
¡Let Freedom Ring! features some of Prophet's most introspective lyrical work to date. "You and Me Baby (Holding On)" finds Prophet dredging up the deepest parts of his conscience and finding something universal and timely there: "Marriage on the skids and the folks ain't doing well, we're holding on/ Seems like maybe half the people we know got the same sad story to tell, holding on."
Recorded in Mexico City during the flu epidemic and the world economic meltdown, ¡Let Freedom Ring! is a troublingly accurate musical painting of our confusing and uncertain times, and once again it finds Prophet on top of his game, mashing together sounds remembered from Donna Summer with those of Phil Spector, Beach Boys' sounds with Alex Chilton. It all comes swarming out like a swine flu leaving the hog farm, something strong, virulent and ferocious with no antidote but to listen your way through it and get well or die.
Chuck Prophet Faced Swine Flu Fears in Mexico City
Music is universal, we know that much. But when Chuck Prophet rolled up his sleeves for his newest album, `Let Freedom Ring!,' he decided to travel outside of America and cut the tracks in Mexico City. A few days into the process, swine flu started to spread—both as a virus and as a media hot topic—with Mexico City at the epicenter.
"I should say that Mexico City is an ancient and ailing metropolis, but at the same time it's booming. It rocks, it bustles, it's a hell-hole and it's paradise," Prophet tells Spinner. "Yes, it's also the capital of the second or third world, our own urban future—almost sci-fi. It's not the place you want to be when the black plague comes down."
Neither Prophet nor anyone in his band or crew caught the illness but they did seem to be afflicted, at points, by another viral scare—hype. "If you turn up the heat on the hype high enough, everyone starts feeling a little off," says Prophet. "You can't help but to take your own pulse every 10 minutes."
That kind of nervous energy can fuel an entire album. So with co-producer Greg Leisz (Wilco, John Fogerty) behind the knobs, Prophet braved exposure to H1N1 for the sake of art. "The amazing thing about Mexico City is that beyond the bustle, the grime and the chaos, everything gets done," he says. "There are commuter train lines that bring half a million people in and out of the city every day. Think about it. So I think ultimately that all the extraneous BS we went through just to get to the studio everyday and to get a take when the power didn't go out brought us all together and made a band out of us."
That may be so, but Yep Roc Records will still release `Let Freedom Ring!' as a Chuck Prophet solo album when it drops on Oct. 27.
PHILOSOPHY Chuck Prophet loves music, the 'healthiest addiction' he has ever had, for its own sake.
WHEN Chuck Prophet joined Green On Red as a teenager, he had no ambitions to be a rock `n' roll star. "I grew up in a small town in California and I didn't even know anyone who'd been in a band or in a recording studio," he says.
"I didn't get into music to buy my parents a yacht."
Three decades later, music is all he's known.
"It's the healthiest addiction I've ever had. And I've had a few."
More of that later.
With Green On Red, he recorded eight albums until leaving to pursue a solo career. That was 20 years ago.
At the end of next month, he'll be releasing his eleventh solo effort Let Freedom Ring.
"I didn't think I was going to do another one. But I wrote a batch of three or four songs, stood back and thought `these songs may be going somewhere I've not been before'.
"Once I knew the direction the album was going in it was easy."
The album was partly inspired by Mexico City, where it was recorded. "It's only a three-hour flight from the west coast but might as well be the other side of the moon. It's a magically inspiring city full of opposites and extremes: friendly folks/corrupt cops, endless beauty/grime.
"With the ink barely dry on a shoe-box full of songs we rolled tape -- and with the punches -- for eight days while enduring poorly-timed blackouts, shakedowns by the Policia and a 6.4 earthquake.
"What really sticks in my mind was eating little tacos around a picnic table and smiling like idiots after plugging the guitars straight into the amps and blowing the roof off that tiny bamboo-lined room."
Music is his passion and way of life these days.
"Since I got clean from drugs and alcohol around eight years ago, my social life has revolved around making music with my friends."
For the show at The Maze next week he'll be with The Mission Express: Stephie Finch, Kevin White, Todd Roper and James Deprato.
Prophet has collaborated with a number of other songwriters but he has no preference whether he writes alone or with a partner.
What does he believe makes a good song?
"Nobody knows really. For me, I have my own values like honesty, but you need to be lucky too. It's a very mysterious thing. People can learn the craft of songwriting and learn how to go from a verse to a chorus but I don't know what it is about someone like Smokey Robinson that makes it different.
"Someone like Leonard Cohen pours things from beaker to beaker over time and creates a master painting, but then a band like Art Brut can come out with their first album and every song is great. And I have no idea how they did it."
As befits a man who is involved with music for music's sake, Prophet's take on success is pretty simple:
"I try to be nice to my wife, cook myself a decent meal every once in a while and still hope to find a guitar that will stay in tune. That's about it."
beautifully realised slice of soulful rock ’n roll and exquisite song writing
Not an everyday occurrence, admittedly, but Prophet remains the only performer I've ever heard quietly slag off his audience to a fellow band member just minutes before going onstage to play for them. ("Look at all these f***ing sheep", he drawled to Green on Red partner Dan Stuart. Trent Poly, 1989. I was there. It happened. Makes me smile to this day.) Since the band fell apart not long after, Prophet has done well with his particular blend of spit and sawdust blues rock, releasing albums regularly and playing and writing for the likes of Aimee Mann, Jonathan Richman and Lucinda Williams. `!Let Freedom Ring!' was recorded in Mexico City last year. Prophet's smart liner notes tell the story, the album pieced together in just 8 days with the help of blackouts, police corruption and an earthquake. ("With the paint barely dry on a shoebox full of songs and the telescope pointed backwards, we rolled tape and with the punches ...")
`!Let Freedom Ring!' is a beautifully realised slice of soulful rock 'n roll and exquisite song writing. As always, the guitar playing is exemplary, breathtakingly good on the soaring title track where his double tracked solo is an unholy marriage of Keith Richards and Tom Verlaine. `Sonny Liston's Blues' kicks in the door with that trademark Telecaster snapping off all over the place. `You and Me Baby (Holding On)' is a beautiful ode to growing old and growing apart. `American Man' is wry with its politics, from the same mould as Springsteen's `Glory Days'. `Hot Talk' struts like early 70s Stones and the breathless delivery carries lyrics poignant and true. `Leave the Window Open' is the most heartbreaking take on `Me and you against the world, babe,' I've heard in quite a while. The mix of bluesy balladry and bar band rocking is smartly placed throughout.
A work of honest, soulful endeavour, `!Let Freedom Ring!' is a timely reminder that, amidst the recent clamour for anyone who's managed to buy a plaid shirt and go without a shave for a few weeks, there were those who stood above the scene long before the scene existed. If you subscribe to `Uncut' and are comfortable using the word `Americana' in polite conversation, I'm offering you a risk-free recommendation.
sheer joy of wreaking havoc
Chuck Prophet ****
Posterity may eventually wake up to the fact that former Green on Red man CP was not only an authentic guitar ace but also an underated autuer. Meanwhile, this is yet another eminently listenable addition to his canon. Recorded in Mexico City, the 11 songs here are a kind of autopsy of the American Dream, delivered in a mix of country, blues and rock flavours. The title track, rife with caustic throwaways like, "let there be markets, let'em run wild" is a riot of raunch and slide guitar licks, where "Where the Hell is Henry?" embodies the sheer joy of wreaking havoc on a telecaster.
sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention
Two decades into his solo career, Chuck Prophet still tends to be defined by his time spent with LA-based roustabouts Green on Red, Which must be galling because he's a sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention. A snarling Sonny Liston's Blues and American Man's tongue-in-cheek Tom Petty-isms help bring ¡Let Freedom Ring! well up to par.
Let Freedom Ring
Following his part in fellow roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo's cracking Real Animal, the Green On Red man designs a fine blend of rebel bar rock, soft country musings and songs that resolve life lessons with a personal touch.
an energized shot across the bows of the American dream
Cult longevity can often be as much a curse as it is a blessing. While the existence of an audience means an artist can continue to make his or her presence felt, opportunities for gleaning new listeners tend to be scant. That doesn't mean that the product has to be irrelevant -- something former Green on Red man Chuck Prophet proves to mighty effect on this incendiary new offering. Recorded with luminaries such as Kelley Stoltz and former E Street Band drummer Ernest `Boom' Carter in Mexico City at the height of the swine-flu panic, Let Freedom Ring is an energised shot across the bows of the American dream. Prophet's playing and singing burns with righteous ire throughout from the Clash-like Telecaster thrusts of opener Sonny Liston's Blues to the disgusted denouement of the title track where he laments the fact that `the hawk always cripples the dove'. Lovers of unfettered rock and roll and impassioned and politicised songwriting chops will find much to cherish.
Sharp-dressed Man How Chuck Prophet Learned To Dress For Success By Brian Baker Singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet's reticence in the wake of his excellent 2007 album Soap and Water isn't unusual. "It's appallingly unfashionable to make records that hold together as an album, but I keep doing them - it's like hitting your dick with a hammer," says Prophet with a laugh. "People I talk to in the business say, `Chuck, we really commend you for that. You go, man.' I still think that way, and I was pretty encouraged by the album I collaborated on with Alejandro [Escovedo] last year. That's how I go about making a record, from the outside in or from the inside out. If I can get three or four songs that take me somewhere I haven't been, then that's enough to keep me going." Prophet got more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling from his work on Escovedo's Real Animal last year. Escovedo advised Prophet to be more aggressive with promoters when setting his asking price for gigs. Prophet left their meeting with more than advice. "We're sitting in his kitchen and with musicians, it always goes right to the business," recalls Prophet. "Al's like, `How's your agent doing for you?' And I'm like, `I'm doing OK.' And he goes, `Seriously, what do you get paid like in Chicago?' `I don't know. I don't want to talk about it.' Eventually I told him, and he was like, `Bro, bro, bro, you gotta be doing better than that.' He got up and went upstairs, and I heard him walking around, and I'm thinking, `What the fuck is he doing up there?' He finally comes down 10 minutes later with three suits on hangers. He goes, `Here, bro, take these with you. Sharpen up your act a little bit. Your fees will go up.' I started dressing nicer and they went up." As for a new album, Prophet seems to have three or four songs to get him going, so a new full-length in 2009 is a possibility. He's beginning to frame it up mentally. "When I got into music, I signed up for the adventure," he jokes. "Maybe I'll go to Mexico City and make an emo record. I haven't really formed it in my mind, but I'm kind of working on an uninhibited, quasi-political record for non-political people like myself. We're living in an anxious time, and I think it's a good time to let the world in a little bit." Prophet will likely debut at least a couple of new songs on his current tour, and based on his description, they seem like worthy additions to his already impressive catalog. "They're a little less boy/girl and more reflective of the times we're living in," says Prophet. "I've got a song called `Paying My Respects to the Train' which might surface. I've got another one called `Jesus Was a Social Drinker' that I like to play solo. I've got a song called `Let Freedom Ring' which is a fun new song I'm excited about, so there's a cluster of things." For his appearance at the Beachland Tavern this week, Prophet will fly solo and acoustic, which allows him the freedom to perform songs that don't normally wind up in his set list. It also forces him to rethink songs that are typically muscled through by his touring band. "`Singer-songwriter' is a ghetto," says Prophet. "People stand back and squint, and we're indistinguishable from one another. It's rough out there. But it gives me an opportunity to try out new songs and different kinds of songs, like some of the more narrative, storytelling stuff that I don't have to get above the band. To be perfectly honest, it's not why I got into music - to play solo. I prefer to have a drummer to lean back on and get ahead and behind the beat and spar like that. But playing solo has its own thing. It's freer in a way. But it can be crushing when you suck."
Soap And Water
Soap and Water is the latest album from Chuck Prophet. It's a burst of unrestrained creativity from a man who enjoys confounding people's expectations. "When I get some kind of inspirational virus, I follow it through to its conclusion. The virus starts with two or three songs that take me someplace I haven't been. It's like writing a play; the songs are characters, inhabited by their own needs or whatever. This time there's probably more devil-may-care spirit to it. It's more spontaneous, less introspective. I sang a lot of it live and the musicians played it on the floor, live."
The twelve tunes on Soap and Water run the gamut from lavishly arranged tunes featuring a string section and Nashville's Methodist Church Children's Choir to minimal late night meditations caught on the fly in one take.
Prophet recorded the album in San Francisco at Closer Studios and Nashville at Alex the Great with co-producer Brad Jones (Yo La Tengo, Josh Rouse, Dolly Parton) who helped keep Prophet on point. Prophet explains, "When I produce myself, I inevitably get to a place where I wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat with bats coming out of my head. It was nice to work with someone who had my back. Brad was able, in his own gentle way, to keep me between lanes.
"The musicians involved are all friends. We approached this record differently. We gave all the musicians and engineers a stake in the masters. I think the traditional system doesn't work anymore. These talented, difficult people all played their hearts out. You can hear it."
Soap and Water kicks off with "Freckle Song," "I set out to write a one-chord classic like `Electric Avenue' by Eddy Grant, but when we got into the studio I wussed out and came up with a chord change for the bridge to play my guitar over." The lyrics? "When I say `Let me please help you out of that dress, before you catch a cold,' it makes me laugh now. It's all so very suave. Like Gregory Peck or someone. That's the beauty of songwriting, you get to be whoever you want to be."
"Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)" is a kind of electro-punk blues produced with digital keyboard, drum machine and a couple guitars plugged directly into the board. "I love guys like Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, Mink DeVille...guys who've been able to take classic Brill Building pop and deconstruct it."
"Every time you blink, every time you rest your eyes, there's another new crop of tragedies off the bus," Prophet laughs about the inspiration for "Small Town Girl." With a simple choogin' Bo Diddley guitar, heartrending female vocal from his wife Stephanie Finch, percussion tapped out on the top of a guitar case and Stygian guitar and organ accents. Prophet delivers this tale of innocence, in a gentle, mournful tone.
"Let's Do Something Wrong" starts out quiet and meditative. Prophet's half-spoken, half-sung vocal with lyrics repeating like a sick mantra ("Let's do something wrong, let's do something stupid") accented by his sparse, single-coil guitar and a marching drumbeat. The bridge ramps up into full bi-polar glory with Prophet pleading at the top of his lungs, "I always did the right thing, what did it get me?" Prophet's closing solo weaves through a rush of strings and a mocking children's chorus.
The album also includes the surrealistic poetry of "A Woman's Voice"; "Would You Love Me?," a folk ballad full of eerie sounds; "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat," a stuttering bit of Southern rock cha-cha; "Downtime," an off the cuff in the studio ode to the pleasures of isolation; and the title track, a gloves-off, back-and-forth duet with his wife Stephanie.
The album closes quietly with "Happy Ending," a breezy meditation on loss and limitation that slowly builds to a climax with a hint of hope and a glimmer of light. Prophet's quiet finger-picking and weary vocal portray the uncertainty one feels when a relationship comes to an ambivalent conclusion.
Chuck Prophet was born and raised in Whittier, California, President Richard M. Nixon's hometown. "If you shook a tree in my neighborhood, five guitar players would fall out," Prophet recalls. "My sister had a lot of records, Stones, Bowie; the music was magical to me. Everyone I knew had picked up a guitar at some point. It was natural to start playing, but I never thought of it as a vocation."
"I moved up to San Francisco to go to college, majoring in financial aid. I saw the Dead Kennedys at the Mabuhay Gardens (the legendary punk venue) and all the early Slash Records bands like Rank and File." Prophet soon hooked up with Green on Red, a groundbreaking, hard to pigeonhole band that would act as a catalyst for the Paisley Underground and alt-country sounds of subsequent years. "Green on Red were the first band I'd met with a van and a gas card, so I joined up. It was summer, I figured I'd get in the van and go back to school in the fall."
That summer vacation turned into eight years and as many albums with Green on Red - a band many people, including Prophet himself, are still trying to make sense of - burning through more than one major label deal. "Some people thought we were the saviors of rock `n' roll; other people thought we were pathetic knuckleheads. I think they're both right. It was like being in a motorcycle gang; we lived out all the excesses."
When Green on Red disintegrated, Prophet launched a solo career with Brother Aldo (1990), an album that fused his love of blues, rock, Waylon Jennings and Richard and Linda Thompson. His jagged guitar lines, gritty baritone and stellar songwriting soon made him a cult figure in Europe, while stateside he won fans like Lucinda Williams, Stephen King, Ryan Adams, songwriting legend Dan Penn (a song they co-wrote, "I Need A Holiday" was covered by the mighty Solomon Burke) and Kim Richey with whom he co-wrote Cyndi Thompson's Top 40 hit "I'm Gone."
A video and film enthusiast, Prophet along with Teddi Bennet makes his own no-budget videos and is always ready to collaborate as musician, producer or sideman to other projects. He's done sessions with Warren Zevon and Cake and produced Kelly Willis's latest Rykodisc album, Translated from Love, co-writing some of that album's songs as well. He's also writing and editing Road Song for the San Francisco Chronicle's book division. "I'm putting together a collection with lots of pictures and ephemera that will explain how you can go from city to city and maintain some sort of sanity. Or not. The road brings out the best and worst in people so I thought I'd ask other road warriors to let me edit their diaries.
For the rest of the year, Prophet will be on the road himself, doing what he does best. "I must be one of the last musicians that still enjoys touring," Prophet says. "When people see us live they're going to get involved. We wiggle and we wobble but we don't fall down."
Riding the riff to its logical conclusion
Chuck Prophet finds more than one way to make music
"He came to San Francisco and we spent about a year writing—a lot of talking, a lot of laying around listening to Mott the Hoople records in the dark and long, long naps but eventually we wrote an album's worth of material and recorded it around Christmas."
The 13 songs on Real Animal document Escovedo's life and times with a narrative flourish. Ideas went back and forth to get the right approach, says Prophet. "Often times Alejandro would tell me a story and I would say something like, `Well it would be great to capture some of that Chelsea Hotel mythology in a song. You get a riff and you ride on the back of it and you just kind of follow it through to its logical conclusion."
The album was produced by Tony Visconti giving Prophet a chance to watch firsthand the man responsible for some of David Bowie and T. Rex's early successes. "Tony has a real gift for using a fine brush," he says. "When we were tracking it was one thing to get the groove together but later when it came to the strings and things like that I could really see Tony's gift for getting in there. He's been doing it for a long time. We used to watch him put his hands on the faders and kind of massage the console. He can take a seemingly uninspired mix and with just a few moves make it sound like a record. He's like a master painter in that respect."
Soap and Water takes a similar storytelling approach but that's where the similarities end. "For me it's really liberating to try and make records that work outside of the singer/songwriter box," says Prophet. "There's probably enough songs out there about people's coffee getting cold. For me, if I can pick a character and breathe life into him and capture the way they talk that's a lot of fun for me. But there must be some of me in there as well, even if some of these characters I don't really like that much."
Traditionally Prophet and his band have played more in Europe than in the U.S. but North American audiences are starting to come around. When Prophet is asked where they most like to perform he responds: "I think the British audiences are some of my favourite audiences. We spent so many years just ignoring North America hoping it would go away. We toured in Europe and it didn't go away. Seattle, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas were some of the early beachheads—we've got a place in our hearts for those towns."
Working with Warren Zevon:
"He used to drink so much Mountain Dew halfway through the day he would get these migraines. He could really be a contentious guy, almost in a perverse way—so funny and so smart you didn't want to miss anything. I did a lot of sitting around but I tell people it was the best internship I ever had."
Writing with Escovedo:
"We wrote a song called Nun's Song where we talk about our first groups and just the thrill of being in a band. Al started playing the 96 Tears riff on his guitar and I just started shouting and screaming until I was hoarse and I recorded it all on a handheld cassette. We listened to it back and took the best parts, typed it out and that was it."
We spoke to Chuck Prophet about "Always a Friend," the opening cut on Real Animal:
I suspect that you've known Alejandro a long time, probably even dating back to his Nuns days, but I think this is the first time you've written with him. What led to you work with him on his new record?
He had an idea that it would work. And he was right. He asked me to come out to his place in Wimberly, Texas. We then spent a year splitting time between my little office space in San Francisco and his garage-cum-manspace in Wimberly. It took us a while to get up to speed. But Al has this incredible faith and patience. He's very patient. I'm like, "What's with the whole patience thing?" He tells me, "Bro, that's the Mayan thing." There were days of us just laying around talking. We spent a lot of time laying on the carpet in the dark talking. And listening to Mott the Hoople records. And naps. Lots of naps. But when we got worked up into a lather, it would flow through us. I often thought that if someone were to see us-if someone were to look in the window at us when we're in the throes of it-they might be tempted to call the cops.
The full interview is here:
The Austin American Statesman has a feature on Alejandro Escovedo, and the songs (all co-written with Chuck Prophet) on his new album Real Animal.
The entire article is online here:
Chuck Prophet covers outlaw Waylon Jennings, and it works beautifully
Chuck Prophet is a Californian born and bred, so it's only natural he takes a few liberties with the lyrics to "Waymore's Blues," one of the songs he covers on his latest full-length-a weird, loving re-creation of Waylon Jennings' classic 1975 country album Dreaming My Dreams. "Well, I gotta leave San Francisco / I gotta spread the news," Prophet sings. "Women up in this piece / They don't wear no shoes." On Dreaming Waylon's Dreams, the singer and songwriter respects the running order of the original work as well as its emotional core, but Prophet is in the line of subversive American pop artists whose afﬁnities are shifty by design.
From Whittier, Calif., Prophet ﬁrst gained notice as guitarist for Green on Red, a band whose whacked-out Americana updated the time-honored trash aesthetic in the '80s. After their breakup, he released a series of well-received solo records, worked with Dan Penn and Jim Dickinson and produced country-pop singer Kelly Willis. Last year he released the ﬁne Soap and Water, on which he came across like the chameleonic Alex Chilton with fewer misgivings about pop's elusive soul.
Cut in San Francisco and in Nashville with producer Brad Jones at Alex the Great studio, Soap and Water took Chilton's insouciant, good-boy-itching-to-be-bad charm as its template. "I met Alex at the 688 Club in Atlanta," Prophet remembers. "He pulled out of that Buick Skylark that he had, with a Super Reverb amp and his clothes in the back, and that was it, you know? Alex sang the blues the way Mose Allison sang it-he had a great, cool way of doin' it."
Dreaming Waylon's Dreams came about as a result of Prophet's longtime admiration of Jennings' masterpiece, and turned on a bit of self-aggrandizement. "We cut it in California over a weekend, and it was really kind of done on a dare," Prophet says. "I think I started braggin', and said, `I could do that whole record from memory, right now.' Three or four songs in, we were starting to get punchy, you know, and we were bringing the words down off the Internet."
The result is a loose, lively document that sounds neither country nor pop. Prophet's humorous baritone holds notes and inﬂects lines with a sort of pathos that never gets out of hand. "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" stomps along in hard, concentrated fashion, with atmospheric guitars. "Waymore's Blues" (itself a reworking of Furry Lewis' 1928 "Kassie Jones") joins the list of inspired readings of the venerable tune by Memphis producer and pianist Jim Dickinson.
"We played it with Dickinson in 1991," Prophet says. "We did a brief tour with him and my band backed him up. Every time I would quote anything from the Waylon version, he would kinda snarl at me. He'd say, `Man, I don't even acknowledge that version.' "
However ﬁnely tuned one's historical sense might be, Dreaming Waylon's Dreams works beautifully. It turns a Nashville record (Jack Clement produced the original) into something close to the Bluff City in spirit. If Chilton's work triangulates Memphis, New Orleans and Brian Wilson's California, Prophet's vision includes Music City.
"In the late '90s, Nashville kind of saved me," Prophet says. He came to town to write with the likes of Kim Richey, with whom he penned a 2002 Top 40 country hit for Cyndi Thomson, "I'm Gone." A ﬁrst-rate songwriter with a ﬁne sense of pop classicism, Prophet might seem an unlikely cowboy standing in line to sing the blues. To paraphrase Jack Clement himself, Prophet might be a fake, but Dreaming Waylon's Dreams proves he's no phony.
It's still a stellar decade for Chuck Prophet-partly because he keeps working through the ordeal of the 15 years that came before. His white-boy blues predated Americana, and he was too sensitive to be a garage rocker. That's how he got stuck being a country-psych sideman in Green On Red. By the time Prophet matured into white-man blues, Americana was too much of a niche market to contain him. His recent string of impressive albums has depended on whatever audience finds him between the cracks.
A lot of that audience is in Europe, and Prophet could be coasting as an intellectual hillbilly. They love that kind of thing over there. Instead, last year's Soap and Water is almost a typical collection of ambitious ramblings. He's playing a little more R&B, and there are some ragged, faster songs that finally get him close to garage rock-but only because Prophet's hung around long enough for the genre to get sensitive. You could compare the record to Dylan or Costello, but that praise is a little faint nowadays.
Folkster finds inspiration in music's margins
INDIANAPOLIS - Chuck Prophet has touched many an itinerant soul with his quirky, loosely-compact folk music. But to call him an influential genius is to get an opposite response from him.
"I don't know what any of that means," Prophet said of that description. "I think I've gotten away with murder. I can't believe I sell as many records as I do."
He's no household name, but Prophet did provide a blueprint for the alt-country movement, starting with his Bay Area exercise-in-excess, the band Green on Red in the 1980s. It's continued with numerous solo albums, the most recent being last year's "Soap and Water." The release features more of Prophet's signature mood swings - the loutish rollick of "Freckle Song" to the spectral chill of "Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)." That essentially defines Prophet, an artist as comfortable writing simple chord progressions as he is elaborate sound collages.
"Some songs just don't want to behave," he said of the latter. "Some songs become so married to a certain arrangement that you've gotta take `em out and rotate the tires. It's elusive about what people respond to. That's really the greatest part about any art form. You can be the greatest craftsman in the world, but you don't know what people are really going to respond to."
It was the `80s punk movement that Prophet and his friends were enamored with. Though Prophet may not have translated the buzzsaw guitars and truculent speed, the iconoclastic spirit remains intact.
"The goal was just to have a band," he said of those early days. "We didn't do much, just sat around fantasizing."
It could be said that's what Prophet continues to do. He still frequently tours ("I'm probably one of five people who doesn't complain about it"), produces others' records, and runs his own label, (((belle sound))). Yet he still won't fully admit to being a professional musician. He's never had a business plan. Rather than measuring success by any economic indicators, Prophet's reason for performing has always been for his own amusement.
"I just have a dark need to write songs and wrestle them to the ground in the form of records and play," he said. "That's what I do. You're really only competing with yourself. The goal is to do something that keeps you interested in what you're doing."
Review: Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express, Fibbers, York, Monday
"HEY, can anyone tell me the last time we were at Fibbers?" asks Chuck Prophet, his Californian rasp convivial from the start.
No one answers, despite Prophet being an American roots rock icon to (mainly) men of a certain vintage in the crowd, fans since his Eighties junkie days in Green On Red. One had seen him no fewer than six times.
"Are you sure?" he teases, in the silence. Chuck thinks it must have been 30 years ago - pre-Fibbers in reality - but the truth is June 20, 2003, and it is hard to believe that anyone could forget a Prophet gig.
The humour, with the droll delivery of a story-telling comic and an always apt phrase, sets him apart from tongue-tied British front man, making each preamble a joyful surprise as he banters with audience wags while tuning or trying to tame the misbehaving sound system.
"Is that a speech impediment?" he inquires, when encountering a particularly persistent Geordie voice. Prophet has a swagger, from his pinstriped waistcoat to the way he holds his Fender Stratocaster high to his side.
Fronting a cool five-piece, he has good cause for that swagger: his songbook of worn country rock, sun-dried blues and mournful ballads has been bolstered anew by last year's Soap And Water.
His seventh solo album elicited the night's high points - in the company of Cake drummer Todd Roper and keyboard-playing co-vocalist Stephanie Finch - from Something Stupid to Would You Love Me. Unforgettable!