Scott Wauters' top ten albums of the year
Chuck Prophet is a regular on World Cafe, a radio show found on WUWM. The host's song of choice is the title track of this bluesy rock album. "Age of Miracles" is best described as beautiful. Each song has a different feel as Prophet does everything to hold the listeners attention.
Age of Miracles marks former Green On Red frontman Chuck Prophet's seventh solo record, and by the sound of things, he's settled into a nice, easygoing, languorous groove that consistently beats slacker kingpin Beck at his own game. Prophet hasn't foregone the psychedelic-heartland sound of his former band, a group that was thought to be a godfather to the sound that bands Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and early incarnations of Wilco put into wider circulation. He forges a sound that very similarly throws a number of wildly divergent musical styles into a blender and hits puree. Blues and rock butt heads with country, folk, and even the occasional rap, as on this record's catchiest number, "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)," which takes Barry Mann's kitschy `60s hit "Who Put The Bomp" by the feet, turns it upside down and shakes all the change out of its pockets. The title track has a breezy, `70s AM pop vibe, "Automatic Blues" ambles casually through a series of chunky riffs, and "Smallest Man in the World" is a fine country strummer. To hint to Chuck Prophet that a mainstream-friendly record would be in his best interest, you would first have to get him to acknowledge that a "mainstream" exists, because it would seem that Prophet has little or no regard for what is cool to the masses. Age of Miracles has the feel of a keen music junkie dusting off his old LPs and putting together a set of loose stylistic homages to musical days gone by, and Chuck Prophet is as good a guide to those days as anyone.
Pairing Prophet with LA's roots-centric New West label (home of the Drive-By Truckers, Tim Easton, etc.) might strike you as peculiar until you consider that the singer-songwriter in question can be pretty peculiar himself, at least when it comes to mashing up genres. Ever since his days two decades ago playing guitar for cosmic country junkies Green on Red, Prophet has followed his own many-forked musical path. He's been invited to open shows for both Lucinda Williams and Heart (who covered his "No Other Love"), and his seventh solo album features contributions from folks who've worked with PJ Harvey, Frank Black, the Mekons, and My Morning Jacket. All of which should tell you something about the man's range, not to mention his taste.
AOM is a multi-colored brush stroke of taut rock moves ("Automatic Blues"), blue-eyed soul ("Heavy Duty," which nicks a recurring piano figure from the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog"), and radio-primed modernist pop ("West Memphis Moon"). "You've Got Me Where You Want Me" recalls Sea Change--era Beck, who may be Prophet's closest pan-genre contemporary. (Prophet's drowsy-with-a-cold vocals also echo Beck's.) No matter what territory he's staking out, Prophet's guitar playing is both tasty and tasteful, and a battery of support - from Wurlitzer organ and Moog synthesizer to horns, and a bona fide string section - keeps the sound wide and lush yet wonderfully intimate. Miracles just about lives up to its title: it's eclectic and cohesive, fresh and classic.
**** (four stars)
Forget water into wine; see Americana turned into rock, pop, rap, and R&B.
There was a time when rock's finer artists were expected to genre-bend. Now, when everything's compartmentalized, its simply messes with the table. Probably why Prophet's solo albums earn more critical praise than sales. This seventh post Green On Red outing builds on the high standard set by his last three: 11 fine songs that, despite their obviously rootsy underpinnings (the dark ravaged West Memphis Moon; acoustic, love-gone-wrong ballad of Pin A Rose on me), refuse to sit quietly beneath the Americana banner. The Gorgeous You've Got Me Where You Want Me, for instance incorporates soul pop synths and even hip hop: the swoony Age Of Miracles mainlines the same Harrison-Lennon vein as Sleepy Jackson did; Automatic Blues is hot, swampy rock: You Did is pure Philly Soul. This is the sound of a man in love with this record collection—and that makes it music to the ears.
The touch of something human Is what I really crave Oh, just give me one thing I can sink my heart into Not another measure of these automatic blues
With these words, growled tiredly against a backdrop of greasy, industrial blues, Chuck Prophet begins his transcendent 11-song exploration into the heart's desire to feel in a world of technology and automation.
Prophet has had a long, slow rise to recent Americana/AAA success, due to his creative strength; he simply refuses to dumb down his songs or production into a consumer bin. The result is a colorful record that tinkers with hip-hop, funky Southern rock, heartfelt folk-pop and downright mean metal.
If "man vs. industrial alienation" is the main theme of the disc, the subplot mines the darker side of humans. West Memphis Moon tells the arrest and trial story of "The Memphis Three." Pin A Rose On Me, co-written with the distinctive Kim Richey, digs unflinchingly into an abusive love triangle.
Prophet's guitar playing is the muscle mass of the disc, and Jason Borger adds a heady dose of keys that bubble throughout like fine champagne. Chuck's partner, Stephanie Finch, adds vocals that manage to be sexy and wholesome at the same time. But it's Prophet's unapologetically real baritone that is at the heart of the songs. He has lived these tales, dreamt them in the belly of his tour bus, seen them in his wife's eyes, and they must be told to a numb world that just might be saved by the knowledge they reveal.
Solid Gold, the disc's final song, brings it down to earth with a simplicity that shows off Prophet's big heart:
You don't need to move no mountains, friend To prove your love You don't need a membership Just take your pretty hand, put it in my glove
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Chuck Prophet has been solo since 1990, after establishing his bona fides with California's psychedelic country punks Green on Red. But it's only on his last New West album, "No Other Love" (2002), and "Age of Miracles" (his seventh solo outing), that he has really fulfilled his great artistic potential. Commercial potential is another story: His music is, by design, difficult to classify. The whimsical choice of instruments ranges from guitar to glockenspiels, violins to Moog synths, and usually aim for a bluesy groove. But Prophet's songs are seriously beautiful, charming and unpredictable. Killer track "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" reverses the eternal question "Who Put the Bomp?" by placing the unexpected answer first. From the tragic narrative of "West Memphis Moon" to buoyant love song "Just to See You Smile," Prophet keeps the listener engaged and attentively off-balance. In "Smile," he sets up a picnic for his perfect love and brings a pack of firecrackers. Some airplay might get Prophet the explosion he deserves.
While alt.country squandered its moment on vintage gabardine shirts, Chuck Prophet's roots-rock has never needed dressing up, whatever sub-genres he has crossed along his fifteen-year solo career. Not to say Prophet's music is bare—Age of Miracles, the SF singer and guitarist's sixth album, has Beatlesy strings, bluesy snares, a top hat's worth of synth tricks, and Prophet's own seasoned leads and drawled vocals. It's the sort of virtual orchestra Beck would use for postmodern bachelor-pad music, but Prophet writes the kind of fundamentalist pop songs underrated in the music industry since the mid-`60s: ones that would look good no matter what they're wearing.
If the Brill Building were still in business—and let's say we have a stage-set view of what goes on inside—we might catch the Flaming Lips psyching out Miracles' liltingly cynical title track (Gonna eat and drink our fill/Lose that baby fat for real/No secrets left to conceal). In the next window, maybe we'd spot Jack White belting the politics out of "West Memphis Moon" or Rufus Wainwright balladeering "The Smallest Man in the World" into exquisite melodrama. And look, there's the maestro himself on the top floor, counting his money. But here in the real world, Prophet embodies all those elements himself (except the money-counter), still hungry and decking out his songs with his own lush, slightly scruffy sound. Lucky for us, at least.
For years, the Bay Area's Chuck Prophet has been "utility guitarist" to the alternastars: Aside from membership in Green on Red in the `80s, his credits include Penelope Houston, Cake, and Warren Zevon. His solo career began in 1990, and with luck his latest, Age of Miracles, will garner him greater acclaim, as it's as fine a roots rock album as you'll hear all year. Prophet draws upon American sounds beyond country and blues, never endeavors to sound "authentic," and augments his earthiness with ambition. "Just to See You Smile" is a great devotional—or parody of a devotional—love song, presented with a neat-o Phil Spector-via-Springsteen wall of sound, complete with chiming guitar riffs. Throughout, there are strains of `70s R&B/soul (wah-wah'd guitar, funky grooves) and `60s orchestrated pop (sultry, far-off-sounding strings); "You Did" even mixes languid trip-hop beats with `60s garage-band organ and Rickenbacker. Prophet sings with a cynical (but heartfelt) Tom Petty-meets-Iggy Pop drawl, and his hearty six-string sound has a coiled-kingsnake bite.
Morning Call, Allentown, Pa
Age Of Miracles
With his seventh record, "Age of Miracles," Chuck Prophet, crooning like the bastard son of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithfull, serves up a potent brew of hip-hop, electric blues, soul, pop-rock and funk. With his knowledge, love and mastery of such disparate influences as Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash and Isaac Hayes, the former Green on Red singer-guitarist fuses 11 otherwise wayward, fragmented tracks into a cohesive whole. The chugging "Automatic Blues" churns with a hypnotic cacophony of guitars and car horns, while the title track picks up where Cohen's "Tower of Song" left off, insisting, almost delusionally in the face of the overwhelming darkness of the age nearly upon us, that "there's more to see, all lost time will be retrieved, I know it's true, it's on TV, in the age of miracles." Prophet proves he can deliver a pop hook on "Just to See You Smile," which slips loose with gorgeous, muted guitars shimmering just below the surface. It's "Pet Sounds" meets "Highway 61 Revisited," with the latter seeping through and pooling in the next track. "West Memphis Moon" is, underneath its traditional country gleam, the tortured lament of a brutal child killer who is no more than a child himself, and as dark a song as Dylan or Cash ever wrote. With its electronic country-swamp folk flavor, "Age of Miracles" is a post-modern traveling revival show, setting up just down the road from Wilco's "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel."
Too many people get their hands on pedal steel guitars and lumberjack shirts and start thinking they're Glen Campbell. That's never been a problem with Chuck Prophet, the San Francisco singer-songwriter and former Green on Red member who has spent 15 years fighting to make Americana music sound (a) good and (b) listenable. It's not as easy as it sounds. Just look at Jay Farrar. But on his seventh and latest solo album, Prophet delivers a set of ace tunes like "Smallest Man in the World" and "West Memphis Moon" simply by clamping his hard-luck voice on dreamy, soft-focus melodies that aren't afraid to stretch expectations. And not one of the lot sounds anything like "Rhinestone Cowboy".
Chuck Prophet is on a streak. With a consistency born out of a strong work ethic and an almost obscene amount of pure talent, he's released three great albums in a row. So does his latest record Age of Miracles achieve the standards of Homemade Blood, The Hurting Business and No Other Love? Absolutely. Once again, Prophet and his musicians gracefully paint a rootsy building with modern colors, mixing soul, folk and good old rock & roll with contemporary electronic production methods. So many artists make this combination sound forced or gimmicky, but not Prophet; his style is never less than organic, and this record is no exception. Make no mistake: this is not some singer/songwriter layering his words and guitar solos over pre-programmed backing tracks. Real instruments are the foundation of every cut; the lush mixing, electro-flavored arrangements and ability to pick just the right effect put what might have been an extraordinary roots rock record into a universe of its own. Of course, all this is merely gravy on the main course: songcraft. Though an accomplished bandleader and a white-hot guitar picker, Prophet has always subsumed flash in service to the song, and his tunes here add more classics to his catalog. The slinky R&B of "Pin a Rose on Me" and "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" shares worthy space with the heartfelt balladry of "Solid Gold" and "You've Got Me Where You Want Me." Rock groovers like "Automatic Blues" and "Heavy Duty" use quirkiness the way actor Johnny Depp does: as flavor, not a substitute for lack of substance. Prophet sneaks some social commentary into his usual examinations of the dance of the sexes; "West Memphis Moon" looks at the infamous West Memphis Three and the deeply sarcastic title track tunefully surveys the state of America. One could argue that Prophet does nothing here that he hasn't done in his most recent work, and that's a valid point. But since Prophet's music sounds like little else out there and it's of consistently high quality, that's mere carping at nothing. Age of Miracles is yet another brilliant record from a great American artist.
It's always a minor miracle when an artist you figured had reached his top speed cranks it up to another level. So often when listening to any singer/songwriter with 7 solo albums behind him, like Chuck Prophet, you know the best is not yet to come. It's probably somewhere in the distance of your rearview mirror. Happily, this is the reverse with Prophet. He's on a road to bigger and better sounds with each release, and Age of Miracles may be his best yet.
Prophet blends styles with an effortless ease, pulling from a big grab bag of country, R&B, hip-hop, and blues and evoking Leonard Cohen as if produced by Beck. Not everything always works well together, but stellar standout tracks like "Just to See You Smile," "Pin a Rose on Me" and the title track are better than the sum of their parts. And Age of Miracles really shines when Chuck's strong timbre is tempered by female backing vocals.
Overall, this is a solid release from a seasoned veteran who's aging well. Prophet has an uncanny knack for adding just enough of that new car smell. Hitch a ride with this prophet down his new road. The trip's just getting interesting.
Chuck Prophet knows how to keep a listener's attention on "Age of Miracles" (New West) with slyly twisted (think Randy Newman meets Bob Dylan) lyrics and a "pan-genre" musical aproach that shifts gears from rock to soul, pop to funk, blues to hip hop without ever "clutching." A great follow up to his 2002's gem "No Other Love" and past work with Green On Red. A-
Chuck Prophet's a walking contradiction. A streetwise city kid with an eye for the country, Prophet's a West-Coast Jim Carroll, an urban John Doe. Prophet's seventh solo album, Age of Miracles, presents so many sides to his personality that it?s a musical Rubik's Cube. The former member of Green on Red leads off with a blues ("Automatic Blues"), detours through hip-hop with the G-Funk inspired "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" and hits the hard country for "West Memphis Moon"—all the while running his mouth like he's starring in a Kerouac novel. The verbiage and hipster pose keep things entertaining; but there's no substitute for the raw emotion that makes "You Got Me Where You Want Me" endearingly sad and "Solid Gold" ultimately hopeful. Because no matter how many tricks you've got up your sleeve, it's wearing your heart on it that gets `em every time.
Since Chuck Prophet released the bleak masterpiece Homemade Blood in 1997, bringing down the curtain on the alt-country and roots-rock stage of his solo career, his music has come to encompass a dizzying array of styles. Multigenre hybrids like 1999's The Hurting Business and 2002's No Other Love nodded to influences as diverse as Bobbie Gentry, Dr. Octagon, Chuck Berry, and Maxine Brown. On Age of Miracles (New West), which comes out this week, Prophet indulges an affection for sweeping pop-soul and funky spaced-out blues. While his lyrics have always been indebted to two-fisted noir proponents like Warren Zevon and cockeyed southern storytellers like Dan Penn, on Miracles their more subtle qualities—wry humor and a keen understanding of women—yield the most satisfying results, as on the cool kiss-off "Pin a Rose on Me" and the supple surrender "You Got Me Where You Want Me." Elsewhere, Prophet's laconic baritone gives contemplative tunes like "Solid Gold" and the title track a craggy warmth that few—besides perhaps Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits—could hope to match.
For a number of former Americana artists, leaving the twang behind was the healthiest thing they could've done for their music career. Just ask Chuck Prophet. After joining the country-tinged Green on Red in 1985 and leaving five years later, Prophet spent the '90s making roots records which almost no one but critics seemed to like (or hear). But over the course of his last three solo records-beginning with 2000's The Hurting Business, 2002's No Other Love and now Age of Miracles-Prophet has genre-hopped with giddy abandon, all without sacrificing his trademark sound and sensibility. Pick a track at random and you might find soul, rock, R&B, pop, funk, electronica, country or even hip-hop. Prophet grabs liberally from the American songbook and makes each style his own. He pulls it off is because he remains unswervingly true to his own vision and themes—and that's why the songs on Age of Miracles, though populated with sad lovers, desperadoes and injustice, bring a smile to all but the most jaded listener.
Age of Miracles proves again that Prophet can rock you silly or break your heart in the space of a song. Tapping into the Philly Soul of "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)," the straight country of "Smallest Man in the World," or the bluesy rock of "West Memphis Moon," he creates opulent arrangements that fit these styles.
Prophet gets a hand on Age of Miracles from some familiar folks-wife Stephanie Finch, string arranger and keyboardist Jason Borger, and a host of studio musicians—but this is his genre-bending, musical-adventure show from the get go.
Like Joe Henry, onetime Green On Read Stalwart Chuck Prophet has evolved since his alt-countryish beginnings into a refreshingly unlabel-able artist who, in mixing and matching genres, thrives on offbeat textures and carefully etched moods. One difference is that while Art has been whispering a little too loudly in Henry's ear of late, Prophet has over the course of seven solo albums raised his accessibility as he has honed his vision. His new album, Age Of Miracles, features some of his most infectious tunes. If not quite as challenging as its two immediate predecessors in drawing from `70s soul and back-porch blues to hip-hop and Moogified pop, it's more cohesive and consistent. While there's a current of modern unease running beneath the tunes for Prophet's craggy baritone to bring out, the album has a brightness of purpose that lifts even the sad stuff. He may not have written a more convincing feel-good song than "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)", which answers the age old question, "Who put the bomp?" (as posed by Bill Building wordsmith Barry Mann), with a loving expression of gratitude and a seductive hip-hop groove. "Just To See You Smile" is nearly as uplifting, and with Prophet's wife Stephanie Finch on answering vocal, "You Got Me Where You Want Me" (one of two tunes written with Kim Richey) happily completes a romantic trilogy of sorts. Another knockout song is the oddly affecting "Smallest Man In The World", which can be read as a meditation on freakdom, or fame, or both. With its Chinese menu's worth of guitars (including baritone, tres and lap steel) and keyboards (including organs, electric pianos, synthesizers and harpsichord) and other instruments, Age Of Miracles could have you playing a game of name that effect. That it doesn't is a measure of how successfully Prophet integrates the musical styles that influence and move him -- and how well the songs, separately and as part of a package, work. "Who cleared the static and made it sing?" He did.
Building on the hippety-hoppy, funked-out, rocked up, smoothed-down grooves of his last knock-out release, No Other Love, Prophet and "long-suffering wife/bandmate" Stephanie Finch (along with keyboardist Jason Borger, Red Meat alum/pedal steel whiz Max Butler, four bassists, five drummers, a beatbox and a programmer) gleefully continue to break all the rules here.
The lyrics at first seem deceptively simple-straight-forward love songs or story-songs or thematic current event songs or dark, cosmic-surfer songs-but upon closer listen, one finds Prophet to be among the rarest of song-writing talents: One who's able to meld the sage observations of the omnipotent Outsider with the painful, all-too-human declarations of what he calls "... the smallest man in the world ..." to create tunes that let the listener both peer anonomously into fascinating tales and simultaneously experience the emotions of the subjects thereof.
He probably nails his own wonderfully twisted psyche and gloriously original oeuvre best in his own words: "All roads lead to Dylan I suppose, beyond that, if I mention one influence I'd have to leave out a hundred. One definite influence on this record is my increasingly acute awareness that we're living in the modern age. Don't get me wrong; I'm not about to throw my laptop into the river any day soon. I'd probably end up developing some kind of a tic without it. There's just no time. No time to daydream, even less time to think. Fast food express lines, meth?paced TV, medications marketed to women who `have no time for yeast infections' (as if the rest of us have the time). Genetically cloning the family pet, prescription miracle drugs, mad cows, madder scientists ... watch those carbs! The psychosis! On second thought, I wouldn't have it any other way." Neither would we, Chuck. Neither would we.
All Music Guide
Prophet's follow-up to The Hurting Business finds him in excellent form, still making American roots music but casting his net a little wider to bring in a few more influences. For example, "Elouise" kicks off with a rhythm straight out of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" before evolving into something looser and less threatening, and "Summertime Thing" has the laid-back vibe of the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" welded to some funky wah-wah guitar influenced by the Isley Brothers. With a voice suggesting that he's training to be Tom Waits when he grows older and occasional lyrics (as in "Run Primo Run") inspired by the vintage Dylan songbook (the Farfisa organ that recurs in the album only furthers the connection), there's a strong romantic streak running through his work, most evident in "No Other Love" and even the growing-older wisdom of "Old Friends." His songwriting continues to grow and his guitar skills (which he tends to hide under a bushel a little), never flashy or grabbing the spotlight, have become mature and sophisticated, a long way from his days in Green on Red. One of America's great underground artists, Prophet's slowly blooming into a major figure.
The Hurting Business
Chuck Prophet's earlier solo work was likable enough: twangy, stripped-down roots rock that, released nowadays, would immediately get him pegged as yet one more exponent of alternative country, singer-songwriter division.(Think Tom Petty without the Byrds infatuation and recording budget.) The Hurting Business, though, rises head and torso above his four previous albums and includes Prophet's best work since his days as a kid guitar-slinger for the too-soon-gone Los Angeles band Green on Red.
The superiority of The Hurting Business can mostly be attributed to a shift in direction, away from Prophet's previous roots-rock recordings—in the whitest sense of that term—back to the broader conception of roots exhibited by Green on Red's best music, a vision that embraced not just the Stones and Hank Williams, but gospel, blues and soul, as well. With The Hurting Business, Prophet puts these R&B roots in the foreground by making sure that his evocative lyrics ride a groove; he then modernizes them with distressed turntable beats and looping DJ samples. Prophet isn't the first former folkie to get funky lately, but he stakes out his own territory. The Hurting Business is catchier and more accessible than similar recent recordings by Joe Henry and more traditionally song-driven than most Beck.
Prophet's rediscovered soul provides a fitting soundscape for the album's corrosive sense of loss. A family beset by a tragedy of its own device finds itself on the local news, then abandoned—"in rags, with a summer to kill"—when its fifteen minutes are up; a loser wants to get lucky, and then we realize that Lucky's the guy who stole his girl ["Lucky" 237K aiff]; a man leaves us wondering if "I couldn't be happier" ["I Couldn't Be Happier" 248K aiff] isn't just about the most depressing thing someone could possibly say. Most powerful is "Dyin' All Young [267K aiff]," in which Prophet's newfound grooves console a grieving mother even as they push her to tears.