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.