Prophet and Loss
"There's winners and there's losers and I'm caught between the two," mourns Chuck Prophet in a rare self-pitying moment from Age of Miracles, his seventh and strongest album.
It is surprising that bitterness and regret don't feature more prominently in the songs of this San Francisco-based singer-guitarist. With 20-plus road-years behind him -- first as guitar-slinger with roots-punks Green on Red, for the past 14 under his own flag -- Prophet is a qualified rock'n'roll veteran. And yet he has enjoyed neither the mainstream success his smart, tough songs and Tom Petty-crossed-with-Elvis looks should have earned him, nor the cult worship assigned to more naturally marginal figures like Will Oldham or Daniel Johnson.
But Age of Miracles finds him too engaged with the present to worry that he has never received his due. Though he remains a son of 60s rock, referencing everything from the drawl of Dylan's Highway 61 to the orchestrations of the Beatles' Abbey Road, he is also taking advantage of the same technology that allows hip-hoppers to create their contemporary cut-and-pastes.
Call it laptop rock. It's a fusion that Prophet began exploring a couple of albums back. But if the turntables and sample-scapes of 1999's The Hurting Business threatened to push Prophet's meaty guitar right out of the frame, on Miracles he gets the balance just right.
On "You Did" he loops drums and weaves vocal samples into an electronic tapestry, without losing his grip on the fundamentally rock'n'roll question: "Who put the bomp in the bomp shooby dooby bomp?" And on the opening cut he stacks up the saxophones of Tom Waits's erstwhile sideman Ralph Carney to re-inforce a crunching riff worthy of Exile-era Stones.
Prophet's reconciling of digital technology with the rock'n'roll spirit is echoed in his website (http://www.chuckprophet.com), where he keeps an occasional log. Here, as he travels from one scungy gig to the next, he shares pearls of received wisdom (fellow journeyman Nikki Sudden cautions him, "I never drink coffee. Keith Richards told me that's the absolute worst thing you can put in your body"), along with a droll commentary of his own. "I remember once getting bumped up to first class," he muses as he boards yet another plane. "I didn't want the flight to end ... In first class you get the feeling that even if the plane crashes, first class will just keep going."
And his songs are laced with the same droll humour. My favourite couplet on Age of Miracles: "I feel like a pair of sneakers in a washing machine/I'm bouncing off the walls, trapped in the heat."
And yet if there's a prevailing mood to Miracles, it's one of gratitude -- for small mercies, narrow escapes and, above all, good love. He lays out his theme in "Heavy Duty", co-written with Dan Penn (composer of the ultimate ode to loyalty, the Aretha Franklin classic "Do Right Woman") and again in the album's closer, "Solid Gold". In these songs, Prophet the rocker does not dissolve into sentimentality as a less mature artist might. He simply views his life from a perspective in which all the rocking and rolling is only made meaningful by the relationship that remains when the music's over. In these moments you understand why there may be more important things to Chuck Prophet than winning or losing.
Chuck Prophet is a good songwriter and a decent singer, but the best moments of his live sets are when his mouth is shut. That's when Prophet is uncoiling his guitar solos—kinetic, crackling and always inventive, wading up from the swamp of Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night" and heading for the open country. There were plenty of those skin-tingling passages at Iota on Saturday night, the songs sounding far more alive than they have on his last few recordings.
"Age of Miracles," Prophet's seventh and latest solo album—he initially made his mark as guitarist for grizzled psychedelic cowboys Green on Red—serves up his usual omelet of fractured Memphis soul, country (he was alt before alt-country was cool) and Dylanesque romps. Playing off the steel and rhythm guitars of Tom Heyman and the keyboards and vocals of wife Stephanie Finch, Prophet, whose own voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Tom Petty's, dunked new songs ("Just to See You Smile," "Solid Gold," "Automatic Blues") in an agreeably gritty bath.
The 90-minute set's highlights were live-wire solos woven into songs with offbeat hooks: "You Did" (a shakin' retelling of Barry Mann's "Who Put the Bomp"), a wonderful cover of Tyla Gang's early Stiff single "Styrofoam" and the stomping, fuzzed-over hoodoo of "Shore Patrol." When Prophet put solos and songs together with that kind of raucous, bar-band energy, his home-brewed country-soul tasted spellbindingly good.
The cover of Chuck Prophet's latest album, "Age of Miracles" is a William Eggleston photo of a young woman holding a vintage camera sprawled across a patch of grass. The box camera image is repeated in the accompanying CD booklet.
Some sort of artistic statement?
"To be perfectly honest, I didn't have an album title," says Prophet, noting his affinity for Eggleston's work. "When I finished the record, when I stood back and squinted a little bit and knew I would have to invent some lies for the bio, I realized there was a kind of a theme running through it, this retro-nuevo general crankiness with technology, and technology not really improving our quality."
Prophet, who visits the South Side's Club Cafe on Friday, says he was a bit nervous about applying this theme because it's been overdone.
He shouldn't have worried. "Age of Miracles" continues the San Francisco-based musician's run of superlative releases that dates to 1999's "The Hurting Business" and includes "No Other Love," released in 2002. Along with "Age of Miracles," the discs share a sense of adventure as Prophet seamlessly combines rock, soul, blues, hip-hop and other forms.
Critics and writers often remark on his ability to "mash" or "synthesize" genres; Prophet says he's sometimes bothered that form seems to be more interesting than content.
"But I can't help but wonder, in a perverted way, what Meredith Brooks and Burgess Meredith might do if you put them together," he says with a laugh. "Or what Jimi Hendrix would do if you brought him back from the dead and said `Hey Jimi, you might want to check this out, it's called a Casiotone. This part here you can get a beat going and with your fingers here you can play chords on these buttons and over here you can play melody.' You just make something up and want to record it. Because inevitably, it would be more interesting than the conventional way that people make records. I guess that's my own perverted way of keeping myself interested. I don't think you need an owner's manual to get through the record."
He's right; all that's truly required is an appreciation of music. Whether it's the melancholic "Pin a Rose on Me," the playful electronic pop of "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)"—a song that asks "who put the ram in the ram a lama ding dong?"—or the wistful title track, Prophet has a knack for creating memorable melodies.
He especially excels at painting the lyrical details: the "extra-special shoes" for "The Smallest Man in the World," or the itinerary of "Just to See You Smile" in which the narrator walks "20 blocks to your favorite bakery" in order to surprise his lover with her "favorite treat."
"I have my own value system, the things that I think that are worth wrestling into the form of a song," he says. "And it changes, because you have to keep yourself interested in what you're doing, musically and thematically. And to keep yourself interested, sometimes you'll discard things if they have a certain familiarity. If I had any more songs about lonely motel room's on life's highway, it's not interesting to wrestle with anymore. I'll just discard it."
Prophet admits to being disenchanted with his music when he's finished recording an album. It's only when he gets a chance to hear it in an unfamiliar environment—a record store or somebody else's home—that he reconciles with his art.
"It's a lot like honking your horn in a tunnel and waiting for it to get you off," he says. "Sometimes, it just doesn't get you off. Sometimes, it's just not so cool anymore. You just wait to hear it bounce off the walls and come back at you."
Talkin’ Tracks: No other love
Chuck Prophet sat down with writer Alex Green to discuss the songs on No Other Love.
Alex Green: "WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME" - A bluesy number with horny swagger. A rave-up like Jon Spencer piggybacked on Joe Tex's shoulders. An apparent tale of infidelity at a bridal shower when the narrator's girlfriend drinks too much and climbs all over some dude like a jungle gym. The worst part: the narrator is the last one to find out.
Chuck Prophet: "The real clincher is when it gets to the bridge and he discovers that the Chippendale dancer in question was his best friend Jerome. Oh no! Not Jerome! This is the kinda news that gets around. The horror—the shame. Ah...I'm just playing ya'll. Stick around for the outro. How often do ya get to hear someone play bottleneck bass through an envelope filter? You may never again."
AG: "AFTER THE RAIN" - A hushed and gorgeous ballad that looks ahead to spring. The leaves are turning color; you take off your boots and walk in the water. Found strings, brushes on a snare and grandma's metronome.
CP: "That's me playing the punch bowl on the chorus. My favorite bit. And we should give special mention to Stephie - the only singer I know who can effortlessly barnacle onto my vocals. Not to mention, brave those mouth-to-mouth duets night after night. Not for the squeamish, I tell ya."
AG: "I BOW DOWN AND PRAY TO EVERY WOMAN I SEE" - Swamp changes augmented by a bossa nova groove. A tour-de-force that finds Prophet in a playful, associative mood. Name another song that mentions both Sissy Spacek and dropping acid at Disneyland? Didn't think you could.
CP: "Back in middle school in Orange County, radical meant taking acid at Disneyland. Ah...the good old days. Kinda like `To All The Girls I've Loved Before' only not as good.
"They don't make those Southern exploitation movies any more, do they? Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds... small towns, crooked sheriffs, corrupt politicians and most of all, those custom color Pontiac Firebirds and Trans Ams. I always dug Jerry "Guitar Man" Reed. A real underrated songwriter, as they say... `Amos Moses,' `When You're Hot You're Hot'. Masterful! He used to make the rounds on the afternoon talk show circuit. I'd watch with my mom after school while she did the ironing. He'd panel with the host holding a guitar and always show off a little. I seem to recall he was a mind-numbing, devastatingly great guitarist. Anyway, I kinda lost track of those movies - `Gator' anyone?"
AG: "RUN PRIMO, RUN" - A modern-day folktale of fellow hoodlums who pilot a failed scheme all the way to the bitter end in a border town you've probably never been to. Replete with a snare drum piped through a twin reverb and mariachi horns, its dark grooves punctuate the imminent desperation of our two heroes - or villains. Think Raymond Chandler in a Hawaiian shirt somewhere in Florida.
CP: "Too many miles in an Econoline sitting on a Fender Twin Reverb reading Elmore Leonard with a flashlight in the dark I suspect. Based on a true story... the names were changed... you know the rest. What can I tell you about Primo and Sonny? Sonny hates pretentious assholes and strip malls exploding around him. And Primo never did like to be talked down to. In their day, they had wars to protest. There were real sides. Four students were shot to death by National Guardsmen at Kent State. Hell, even Patty Hearst wielded a machine gun. Just a little harmless fun, `til somebody gets hurt.
"It was a simple plan. Of course the heist went terribly wrong - they always do. Down the road, Sonny developed a conscience or fell into a paranoid funk, depending on whom you talk to. And as they say, only the truth can set you free. Besides, after a couple of drinks, Sonny never could keep his mouth shut. Now it's not just between Sonny and his Higher Power. Primo had better run. The money's gone and there's no statute of limitations on murder. Primo says, `Damn, Sonny—I got kids!'
" I thought I was paying tribute to Hubert Sumlin with those repetitive one note Tele stings, until Justin the engineer spun around on his stool and said, `Rad dude, sounds like Cypress Hill!' I guess `it's all good' as the kids say."
AG: "STORM ACROSS THE SEA" - Heavily under the influence of Tony Joe White/Jeannie C. Riley and all those great southern exploitation story songs from "Son Of A Preacher Man" to "Midnight Train To Georgia" and every stop between. The production: a marriage of eras—the rhythm section sounds like they're on loan from D'Angelo. Dripping wah-wah, gooey molasses electric wurlitzer.
CP: "I wrote this with klipschutz in a couple of minutes one Sunday in his basement flat in S.F. We were both getting hungry and halfheartedly finished it off. Three verses before lunch I always say. It just wouldn't go away. We must have rewritten it a dozen times. After the first line, `someone call the ambulance, she's completely nude standing on a fence' and the string figure that follows it, people should get the idea that something's about to go down. It would be foolish to follow `I woke up this morning, duh, duh, duh duh' with all those grandiose strings ... wouldn't it?"
AG: "NO OTHER LOVE" - A spare and slinky number with pedal steel and soaring strings. An honest and intimate meditation, whose mantra, `no other love,' allows the narrator to go anywhere. Beautiful. Some people call it skywriting.
CP: "I involuntarily wrote this song in a hotel during a commercial break in one sitting ... top to bottom! All three chords and two lines or whatever it is. We were `rehearsaling' some stuff and setting up mics to record demos at Pigshead Studio/Rehearsals. It was so cold that day in that cement bunker of a studio, I can remember seeing my breath in front of my face. Tim Mooney surreptitiously recorded us running it down. Not the first take: he actually recorded us learning it. That's why it takes so long for the band to come in. They're pretty quick - by the time we're two verses in, key change and all, they got all three of the chords in the right order. No point in trying to recreate that crime scene or write a second verse for that matter ... not that I didn't try in vain. We later recovered the original multi-track cassette it was first captured on and Greg Liesz and I over-dubbed onto it in my living room. Hats off to Tim Mooney for rolling the tape. Now that's production! And props to Jason Borger, who charted the beautiful string arrangement."
AG: "ELOUISE" (self-help boogaloo 2001) - Farfisa and bajo sexto guitars rage in this Mexican rock and roll border nugget fiesta. No shortage of secret sauce.
CP: "He drives a late model Lexus. There's a stack of self-help books on the passenger seat. He's not necessarily a bad guy. He's accepting applications for a mate. Must have a positive outlook and a sympathetic ear and a few other specific qualifications. A song that might build character to sing night after night. I have no idea. That's a nod to Senator Condit with the Modesto reference. There's always something to pull out of the air - or maybe it's the fact that wherever I go there's a TV on in the background. Not that I have any beef with TV. You go fight the power. I'm staying at home. There's got to be something on!
"God knows why, but did you know that for some reason, a lot of Germans settled around San Antonio, Texas? Obviously, they brought their accordions with them. It's been well documented. In the `60s, when the world went electric, any self-respecting Beatles fan traded in their accordion for a Farfisa organ. It's true! Or maybe I just made all this up. Sir Doug, Question Mark ... I can't get enough of that shit. I recommend you go out and get the Texas Tornado's greatest hits today. It just might make you a better person. Mixing this song, we tried our damndest to find a reverb setting that sounded like a corrugated tin shack. Apparently, they haven't made one yet. Give it time, though."
AG: "THAT'S HOW MUCH I NEED YOUR LOVE" - A lover's plea in the tradition of Andrew Marvel, but way hornier. Swaggering, pulsing, and smooth. Duane Eddy meets the Gorillaz at Lou Rawls' house.
CP: "When we cut the track, we were amazed at how Max was able to lock in the omni chord beat box with the band, until it occurred to us that we were playing to him! It's just a blues really, over a Casiotone beat box. Stephie came up with that cool background siren vocal part. I'd like to hear Bon Scott sing this song, or better yet, Mark Kozelek. It's a kind of predatorial thing, isn't it? Not quite Andre Williams, but heck, my parents are gonna hear this. And God knows, I've done enough to embarrass them already."
AG: "SUMMERTIME THING" - Recorded under the influence of Dr. Dre/Tupac Shakur. A sun-soaked urban shuffle that pays homage to the summer. You can feel the sweat down your back, the sting of debt, and you know it's going to end, but you just don't care. This one has bounce...with steam. California soul that tips its hat to Roger Trout with the vocoder in the chorus. Pedal steel and vocoder are a deadly combo-you don't find that everyday.
CP: "Am I deluded or is it a hit? I'd like to have a hit. Instead of living like a community college student, maybe I could start to live like a grad student? Or maybe get one of those custom guitars with my name written across the fretboard in mother of pearl. I can see the video now: girls in bikinis singing into blow dryers... Yeah!" We played this song recently and a Mission boho Clark Kent eyewear-donning hipster said to me, `Chuck, I don't mean any disrespect, but that song put me right back where I was the first time I heard `Night Moves.' Bob Seger? No offense taken!"
AG: "WHAT MAKES THE MONKEY DANCE" - Adolescent character studies for the sexually confused. A rootsy hip-hop meditation that asks some pretty important questions. The answers are forthcoming.
CP: "There's nothing unhealthy about it. Some things you can't learn in books ... so just throw away the owner's manual. We don't need Dr. Ruth to tell us that - or do we? With only two chords toggling back and forth, your mind tends to wander. I try to imagine Cleopatra dressed as Venus, the goddess of love, reclining under a gold canopy, fanned by boys in Cupid costumes. Or that fleeting moment when at a stoplight on Mission Street - the windows down - Santo and Johnny spilling out of the radio ... a low rider pulls along side, pumping the 808 at bone rattling volume, and for a split second it all comes together in harmony like chocolate in the peanut butter. That's the sound I was chasing. And I guess I'll keep chasing it until something reaches out and grabs me! I laid down a track of my attempt at a human beat box and we built it up from there."
AG: "OLD FRIENDS" - And that's the thing about small town gossip—you know so much you forget to talk about the things that actually happened. A track featuring nylon string guitar over a bossa nova pre-set beat.
CP: "Stephie played the one note samba `string' in an homage to Nilsson's `Everybody's Talkin'.' There are some secrets we all take to the grave. Then again, if you can't laugh at yourself, make fun of other people. That's what I always say."
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A seasoned veteran that many are just now starting to hear about, singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet has just released his second album on New West and seventh overall. Prophet has a bluesy voice that is smooth and easy on the ears, and at its upper register resembles Ray Davies of the Kinks. There are flavors of blues, funk, rock, pop, alt-country, jazz...am I missing anything? Well, Prophet isn't and he really shines here as an artist and a songwriter. The trippy "You Did" is my favorite track among a lot of good ones.
Former member of alt-country godfathers Green On Red and musical experimenter deluxe Chuck Prophet's second album for New West, Age Of Miracles, came out a year ago but is definitely worth a quick re-visit. 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 autonomously 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.
That's it for this time `round, `Dial-heads! Tune in next week for a few more New West reviews, and don't forget to kick Old Man Time in the ass for Tommy this New Year's Eve ... Until next year-make yer own damn news.
Chuck Prophet, "Age of Miracles" (New West): Prophet's records always seem to find a way into my best-of lists. No one layers country, rock and 1960s soul idioms better than this former Green on Red guitarist. "Age of Mircales" includes the eerie/erotic "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)," and "You Got Me Where You Want Me," a duet with wife Stephanie Finch, recalls the innocent charms of Sonny and Cher.
Who put the bomp in the bomp shooby dooby bomp? / Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?
Listening to Chuck Prophet sing these lyrics, it's not hard to believe that maybe Chuck himself did. Age of Miracles is the latest in a string of four incredibly strong albums since 1997's Homemade Blood. But as satisfied as he is with the work, Prophet is in no mood for playing the artiste. "This one was tough, very tough," he says. "I need to stop making a record every 18 months." Even so, for all the stress and strain of a creative process that involves producing, writing and playing an orchestra's worth of instruments, Prophet has managed another minor masterpiece, something purely American but entirely genre-blurring, something derivative yet far, far beyond simple derivation. The album is a huge vat of pop-music influences that may appear at any moment in tracks that are instantly catchy and always vaguely familiar, in a primordial-soup way. Besides his wicked Fender Squire fretwork and the nasty elasticity of his suggestive voice, Prophet lays on an array of sounds that range from garage-rock Farfisa organ to torrid night-of-sin horns.
The album is full of tunes co-written with some of the biggest names in the business, and nowhere is the collaborative effort more successful than on the dark, surly "Pin a Rose on Me" (Kim Richey), the Neil Sedaka-meets-the Ronnettes bouncy Brill Building love song "Just to See You Smile (Angelo, Kim Carnes) and the funk-laden "Heavy Duty" (Dan Penn). But the ultimate highlights are purely Prophet's, like the rip-your-brain-out licks of "Automatic Blues," the straight-from-the-Tenderloin lyrical slyness of "You Did" or the sinfully fun "Monkee in the Middle." Fifteen years beyond his tour of duty in pioneering insurgent country outfit Green On Red, Chuck Prophet continues to put the hip in the hippie hippie shake.
Best of 2004
Of all the artists on this list, perhaps there's no one harder to pigeonhole than Chuck Prophet. On Age of Miracles, the under-acclaimed fretter builds upon his typically folk- and country-rooted sound with some curveballs. He begins, for example, with barroom scorcher "Automatic Blues," then glides into 1970s psychedelic clouds with a smile-inducing title track that came 35 years too late to become a hippie anthem.
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.
Chuck Prophet couldn't predict radio would play him
Chuck Prophet doesn't need a map to get around in Austin. He's so familiar with the city, it almost sounds as if he lives here.
The San Franciscan has done his share of South By Southwests, and a reference to South Congress Avenue slides easily off his lips. But the bigger deal is his affiliation with Austin- and Los Angeles-based New West Records, which just released "Age of Miracles," his second album under that label.
New West propelled Prophet's irresistible "Summertime Thing," from his pinnacle album, 2002's "No Other Love," into an adult album alternative radio hit. (KGSR 107.1 is the local representative of that format). After seven years of playing guitar in the hard country-rock band Green on Red, and another 12 years trying to crack North America as a solo artist in the soul/pop-rock/funk/dirty blues/mild hip-hop/etc. vein, Prophet had no expectations of even getting airplay.
Chuck Prophet, who stretches over many eras and genres, has a new album out and a gig Oct. 9 at the Continental Club.
"We had a brief meeting about how to market it and promote it. I suggested we all stand in a circle and hold hands and pray," he laughs. He was stunned when the New West gang told him they were serious.
"Getting on the radio was the kind of advice my Dad gives," Prophet says. Imitating his father, Prophet intones, " `Son, what you need to do is get on the radio.' It's like, `Thanks, Dad. Maybe we can get together and have a panel at South By Southwest. Or better yet, you go and tell me what you learned.' "
Ah, there's that Prophet wit. He shares doses of it throughout the interview, as well as in his songs. His explanation of what happened after "Summertime Thing" took off goes, "Instead of seeing five guys with beards, we started playing to, like 25 girls in tube tops. And nobody was complaining. Not even Stephanie, my wife."
Stephanie Finch is the band member behind the Farfisa organ, from which she evokes the unmistakable sound that filled so many `60s hits. Prophet, a seriously wicked guitar player who loves his wah-wah pedal and other effects, often revisits that era for inspiration. Prophet lists Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen as his major influences; Brill Building scribes such as Carole King and Jerry Goffin clearly had an impact as well. On "Age of Miracles," he's got a song called "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)," complete with "shoop-shoops" and triangle dings.
For this album, Prophet had an even more direct link to that era; he co-wrote a song with the legendary songwriter and producer Dan Penn, author of the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby," and several Aretha Franklin hits, including "Sweet Inspiration," "Do Right Woman" and "Dark End of the Street."
Years ago, Prophet's acting manager sent him to Nashville to try songwriting (an "incredibly original idea," he notes dryly).
The first time he went, he had a gig at the famed Bluebird Café.
"It turns out I was booked the night of the CMA (Country Music Association) awards, which is like the Super Bowl of country music," Prophet explains. "I was just about ready to take the stage and perform for the doorman and the soundman when Dan Penn showed up. I guess he was the only guy who didn't know it was the CMA awards."
They wound up writing the new album's "Heavy Duty."
Kim Richey is another collaborator; she co-wrote "You've Got Me Where You Want Me" and "Pin a Rose on Me."
"I think it's still a pretty special thing when two people can get together and do that. It doesn't work with everybody," Prophet says. "(But with) somebody like Kim Richey, it's just like fallin' off a log. She has a natural gift for just drawing a straight line."
When Prophet finds he needs a second opinion, he's not shy about asking for help.
"Sometimes," he says, "I have to do what Dan Penn describes as bringing in a couple of people to perform a miracle. It increases your odds."
Prophet does all right by himself, too. "Summertime Thing's" brilliance has as much to do with its vivid lyrical images as it does an incredible melody. For instance:
Go ask your dad for the keys to the Honda
Can your sister come along, how could she not wanna
Put the Beach Boys on, wanna hear "Help Me Rhonda"
Put the Beach Boys on, wanna hear "Help Me Rhonda"
It's a summertime thing ...
Though she's not credited as a co-writer on any songs, Finch has to be a major collaborator as well.
They've been on the road together for so long, he can't remember whether it's been 10 years, or 13 or 14. (His "long-suffering" wife, as he often refers to her, probably gave up expecting anniversary gifts ages ago.)
"Sometimes, it's less of a marriage and more like we're Army buddies," he says. "We get along better the more difficult it is, really. The road kind of brings that out in people."
As his New West/"Summertime Thing" experience proves, it might take a lot of miles, but eventually you can find the place where you belong.
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
Chuck Prophet and Robbie Fulks at The Dame
This fun double bill shifted from alternative country that sprouted strong traditional roots to crafty rock and soul mischief. But it was the literary wit circulating in the songs of both artists that fueled the show's finer moments. Fulks remained a country scholar well versed in beefing up vintage covers (I Want To Be Mama'd and Bill Anderson's hardcore honky-tonk anthem Cocktails) while allowing self-effacing sarcasm to creep into the domestic cracks of his own tunes (Countrier Than Thou and Every Kind of Music But Country). Prophet, as usual, remained a rocker who addressed an uncommonly vast pop vocabulary running from the wicked cool of Homemade Blood to the noir-style setting of West Memphis Moon. But it was on 2000's Diamond Jim that all these elements converged: a melodic groove full of soulful bounce, a vocal chorus with deep R&B creases and a guitar hook that was still ringing in your brain half an hour after the concert was over.
Chuck Prophet turns music into movies
Lynagh's was launch pad for cinematic-style singer
There's a song on Chuck Prophet's new album, Age of Miracles, called West Memphis Moon that tells you all you need to know about how effortlessly the San Francisco songsmith blends story and style.
The lyrics outline a murder mystery, the tale of a self-described "walking razor blade" detailed in misty shades of black and white. But the accompanying sounds couldn't be more colorful: hand claps, vintage keyboard orchestration and washes of wah-wah guitar. Suddenly the song's sense of fleeting menace is big enough to fill a movie screen.
"Actually, I cast a song like a movie," Prophet said by phone last week. "Every one is different. I work out an arrangement more than most rock guys. But I also like to think I keep my ears open for any kind of strange collisions or accidents that might happen. I like to be well-prepared but remain willing to adapt and improvise. A song, to me, is a way of getting behind an idea and pushing it forward."
Lexington has been lucky enough to watch Prophet's musical movies unfold with a series of performances that began at the now-defunct Lynagh's after the release of 2000's The Hurting Business. He returns to town Thursday.
Prophet's early solo records took directions he never considered. Literally. They were released mostly through overseas labels, which meant he performed more in Europe. The Hurting Business increased his stateside notoriety as well as domestic distribution for his music. Lexington soon became one the first touring destinations to champion Prophet's earthy mix of twang, pop and cinematic-style rock `n' roll.
"Around the time of The Hurting Business, I got a manager," Prophet said. "We decided it would be a good idea to get a booking agent and a van. That's when places like Lynagh's became early anchors for us."
Popularity for Prophet's music has mounted since then. The breezy pop single Summertime Thing became a surprise radio hit in 2002. Tours with Lucinda Williams and, more recently, the Old 97s followed. And in June, a version of the title track to his album No Other Love was released by, of all bands, Heart.
"Sometimes I still have a low-level anxiety about where the next song is coming from," he said. "But I feel more committed to what we're doing now more than ever. I feel I'm just getting started."
Billboard Picks - Album Picks
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.
A Prophet walks among us
Rocker to lead last Waterfront Wednesday show
Chuck Prophet loves him some Heart. Those Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy, absolutely rock. Heart's new album features a cover of Prophet's "No Other Love," which means a significant payday for an artist who doesn't see a lot of those. It helps that Heart does justice to Prophet's beautifully sad ballad.
Chuck Prophet began a solo career during Green On Red's final days and has probably performed or recorded with nearly every one of your favorite bands. "It wasn't sad when they recorded it," he said, laughing. "That was a good day for me, dawg."
Prophet is a funny guy. Conversation with him can veer crazily from films to books to music to absurdities, not necessarily in any order.
Ask him about writer's block and suddenly he's talking about crime novelist Jim Thompson. Mention digital recording technology and in seconds he's going on about filmmaker Lars von Trier. He sports an active, curious mind, which may be essential to surviving a 20-year career in a business noted for ignoring its best talent. When things get tough, there's always comfort to be found in a Sterling Hayden marathon.
Prophet and partner Dan Stuart helped define Americana music with Green On Red throughout the 1980s and early `90s. He began a solo career during Green On Red's final days and has probably performed or recorded with nearly every one of your favorite bands.
Saying that Prophet is only now peaking as a writer isn't a hard sell. His last four solo albums - "Homemade Blood" (1997), "The Hurting Business" (1999), "No Other Love" (2002) and the new "Age of Miracles" - are studded with powerful songs.
It's no coincidence that on the last three he has expanded his possibilities by exploiting digital technology in the arenas of recording, editing and performing. Once an example of straight-up traditionalism, Prophet has embraced tape loops, beat boxes and creative editing, but, unlike so many others, he uses it all to serve the song. Rarely have electronics sounded so organic.
"When Pro Tools technology came along, all the roots-rock Nazis were still arguing about vinyl sounding better than CDs, which is an easy way to get me to leave the room," he said.
"You can definitely use Pro Tools to get rid of all your mistakes. You can make something that's perfect. But the cool part is taking the mistakes and making them repeat so you get these really abstract hooks."
Live, Prophet remains a tough, visceral rocker - even a guitar hero. He will headline the season's final WFPK Waterfront Wednesday concert, on Harbor Lawn.
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.