No faking Prophet's kind of cool
If you can measure a person's character by the quality of his friends, Chuck Prophet is a lucky man.
The San Francisco singer-songwriter plays the Southgate House in Newport Thursday with one of those friends, Kim Richey. Earlier in the day, they will stop by WNKU-FM (89.7), where music director John Patrick once described Prophet as "the coolest guy we've ever had in here."
Testimonials are nice, but the proof is in the music. Prophet's latest album, "Let Freedom Ring!" is a meditation on our life and times, somewhat inspired by one his heroes.
"It was Hunter S. Thompson who really based his career on the life, death, rebirth and total disappearing of the American dream," Prophet says. "I was interested in that when I started writing songs for this album. I had the window open, and after about two or three songs, I realized that's where I was going."
In addition to his solo projects, Prophet is a trusted collaborator to folks like Richey and Alejandro Escovedo among others. He co-wrote more than half of the songs on Escovedo's 2010 "Street Songs of Love" and partnered on every one on 2008's "Real Animal."
"When we get in a room, we just never run out of things to talk about," Prophet says of Escovedo. "It's like touching two jumper cables together. The songs just kind of spill out of that. To Al's credit, he has the ability to make somebody feel like you've known him your whole life."
Prophet's whole life hasn't been spent basking in a cocoon of critical acclaim. He started living the rock `n' roll lifestyle as a teenager, and fell victim to those temptations. But while he struggled with a drug problem, he also made good music with the band Green on Red, an early acolyte of the country punk sound.
"We really took that lifestyle thing as far we could," he remembers. "We were working with (Memphis musical legend) Jim Dickinson on a record called `The Killer Inside Me,' which kind of split the band, brother vs. brother.
"While we were there, Alex (Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star) would drop by. ... Big Star was like the Sex Pistols in their own way ... the influence that it had, just like the influence that the Velvet Underground had, Big Star had the same amount of influence."
Spending time with Dickinson (who died last year) and Chilton (who died this year) certainly influenced Prophet, but cool innately knows cool.
"The thing about Alex is ... he was cool. He didn't have to say a lot about (his life and music), and he never did a lot of explaining. There was nothing exaggerated at all. He was the coolest (guy) who ever lived."
Patrick might disagree. "(Prophet) is just cool. You can't fake cool."
She was unwanted in 17 state
Chuck Prophet first came to semi-prominence in the mid-`80s when he joined countrified California rockers Green On Red, and has since pursued a varied career as a singer-songwriter, session man, and producer (Kelly Willis'sTranslated From Love, for instance). His ninth solo album, ¡Let Freedom Ring!, is bar-band rock of a high order: smart, loud, funny, simple, pissed off, but also sentimental in that last-call sort of way. It's also attuned to Great Recession anxiety and passionately pro-underdog (a typical line: "She was unwanted in 17 states"), most notably on the Randy Newman-meets-Tom Verlaine ballad "You and Me Baby (Holding On)," whose backing harmonies and soaring bridge get me every time. With the Mad Ripple. (Photo by Kelly Stoltz)
Fri., Oct. 15, 8 p.m., 2010
Packed and Potent
Chuck Prophet at Natasha's Bistro: Likening the sold-out, coffeehouse-flavored atmosphere at Natasha's Bistro & Bar to "a PTA meeting," Prophet stripped away the voltage but not necessarily the rockish electricity from his music for his 90- minute solo acoustic performance. Although it was his first Lexington outing without a band, the West Coast songsmith presented what was essentially a rock `n' roll show for a sit-down crowd. And it worked.
Sure, the quieter strides of ballads like Would You Love Me? and Whole Lot More already had enough folkish ingenuity to fit readily into the solo format. Other works opened up enough for Prophet to color them with playful narratives. Before Sister Lost Soul, for instance, Prophet recalled when he and pal Alejandro Escovedo went in search of a recording studio in the aftermath of an Austin, Texas, ice storm ("Where it got cold for, like, 10 minutes"). Then there were the less-than- complimentary remarks about CNN journalist Anderson Cooper that more curiously prefaced You and Me Baby (Holding On). And let's not forget Apology, which Prophet proudly dedicated to Mel Gibson.
But the real riot involved more purposefully rock-directed fare that packed a potent and resourceful wallop even without a band. Among them: Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You), which revealed a cool yet pensive groove, and I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See, with its sly, Tom Petty-ish framework.
Sure, there were a few songs that really made fans miss the homemade firepower of Prophet's Mission Express band. Diamond Jim, for instance, sounded great, but one couldn't help but yearn for those fat, Kinks-style power chords that the band version possesses.
But hearing a long-lost relic like Lucky recast as a wily acoustic yarn, or the radio hit Summertime Thing as a suitably seasonal sing-a-long? Those were the products of a crafty pop mind that can locate a rock `n' roll vibe in the most unassuming of performance venues.
This was a rock show even the PTA could love.
Chuck Prophet Let Freedom Ring (Yep Roc)
Let Freedom Ring (Yep Roc)
By Todd LazarskiAt the heart of hugely underrated singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet's sound there's always been a kind of tug-of-war among disparate eras. In turns Petty-esque, Springsteen-like and generally rife with Stones swagger, there's also an undeniably coy, modern indie slant. Sure there's "Born to Run"-style driving guitars, and even some "shoobie-doo-wop" backing vocals, but, hey, LeBron James gets name-checked too. In fact, Prophet's latest sounds a bit like Franz Ferdinand after an all-night bout of Studs Terkel: old-timey, good times rock, but with a conscience.
Prophet empathizes with the downtrodden ("What Can a Mother Do"), apologetically pokes fun at his roots ("American Man") and seems generally earnest in hopes of a renewal in the Americana from whence he borrows so much of his sound. From jangly country rockers to straight KLH-style distortion, what mostly comes out is a from-the-hip, nostalgic take on the American ennui that was 2009.
The songwriting peaks may be clearest on the introspective tracks—"Leave the Window Open," or the lovely "Love Won't Keep Us Apart"—but as a whole the album feels like something more. It's a sensible, rollicking, perhaps important look at the hard times of the moment.
Chuck Prophet – Let Freedom Ring
Chuck Prophet -- Let Freedom Ring
Chuck Prophet -- Let Freedom Ring (Yep Roc)
Chuck Prophet began his musical journey as Dan Stuart's foil in Green on Red, an often tremendous band that mixed scabrous garage, Dylan-Velvets poesy, and American roots in cool ways. `Let Freedom Ring" is a good representation of the best in Prophet's solo career. Prophet is a sharp, never pretentious, lyricist. The songs on his new record `Let Freedom Ring" illuminate the current American predicament, wryly capturing the woes of the workaday and the marginalized.
Prophet uses his modest baritone effectively, sounding like Tom Petty after too many drinks and too much sun. A first-rate guitar player, he has much in common with Mike Campbell, Keith Richards, even Richard Thompson. Some of Prophet's records court Americana's banal reserve, but "Let Freedom Ring,' recorded in a funky analogue studio in Mexico City, rocks loose and profits from it. Chuck Prophet isn't reinventing the wheel. He rarely strays from a sound that would engage a savvy Dylan, Petty or Stones fan. With a really good record like "Let Freedom Ring," he makes worthy company for such icons.
Prophet of truth
By JOHN BECK
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 10:01 p.m.
When it came time to record a new album, Chuck Prophet packed up his guitars and headed south of the border for a Mexico City studio that was state-of-the-art circa 1958.
The result: "¡Let Freedom Ring!" is one of the most honest snapshots of troubled times to reach listeners in 2009.
From the stark opening riff of "Sonny Liston's Blues" (admittedly a rip-off of The Clash's "London Calling" intro without the morse code) to the striving strum and hum of "Leave the Window Open," it's chock full of heartache, despair and the occasional breath of hope.
The Village Voice called it "a `Born in the U.S.A.' for our time." No Depression christened it "a new American anthem for the post-9/11 world."
The San Francisco folk-rocker with the Tom Petty drawl and the wry sense of humor (2010 resolution: "Start smoking again and stop working out" ), Prophet keeps telling everybody "they're political songs for non-political people."
Two decades after he split with Green on Red, the wide-eyed dreamer who fled Whittier for San Francisco is firmly entrenched as one of the most observant and honest songwriter's songwriter plying the trade today.
Maybe it's because he finally got his "breakthrough hit" out of the way back in 2002 with "Summertime Thing." Or maybe it's because he kicked drugs and alcohol 11 years ago. Or his storied collaborations with Alejandro Escovedo, Cake, Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman and Lucinda Williams.
Or maybe it's the way he pauses midway through the interview to ponder, "I know I don't have a job, but I'd have to think about whether or not I'm actually making a living."
There's something about Chuck Prophet that begs to be studied.
Before the 46-year-old survivor takes the stage with his wife, keyboardist Stephanie Finch, and the rest of the Mission Express at the Mystic Theatre on Jan. 22, he took time out to talk.
Q: How'd you wind up in Mexico City in the middle of the swine-flu epidemic?
A: Well, we didn't plan the swine-flu part. But I had a batch of songs and I wanted to record them somewhere energized. The whole process of recording these days has gotten so complacent with all this technology being available to so many people. And I just wanted that feeling of recording like your life depended on it. So we got it.
Q: How much of a bonding experience was that with the power going out repeatedly and the mass hysteria going on outside?
A: That was actually cool because every take that you hear on the record there's a sense of triumph at the end. That kind of reminded me of the records I made as a teenager. We'd book a studio, like Hyde Street in the Tenderloin. We used to book the midnight sessions.
Q: How much do you think you paid for that back then?
A: A lot of money actually. Probably like $300. You can still get a lot of studios for $300 today lemme tell you. That's one of the things that hasn't changed. A good gig back in 1985 was $500 and a good gig in 2009 is still $500.
Q: That's your New Year's resolution — to get a $600 gig.
A: Or at least string together a few of them.
Q: Was there a moment in Mexico City when you thought, "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea?"
A: I can't say that I was scared, but there were nights when I was staring at the ceiling, thinking, "Oh boy, what have I done?"
Q: If I throw out a song title, can you tell me what comes to mind?
Q: "Sonny Liston's Blues."
A: To me, he's the perfect analogy for the American dream. He's part reality and part myth — always just out of reach. He had to open the record. There was a myth people had that they were going to be able to comfortably retire and they woke up one morning and realized that reality was not quite what was sold to them.
Q: What about "Barely Exist"?
A: Steve Earle once told me, "It's your job to keep your antennae up and find things that are absurd." For me, the fact that we've spent a billion dollars building a bigger wall around this country and thousands of people die every year coming up from Mexico only for the opportunity to clean our toilets is just absurd.
Q: You haven't been a super-political songwriter over the years, what was it about the issues that got to you this time?
A: Well, I can't really say that this is some kind of battle cry. I'm not really a political guy. But what happened is I just kind of stood back and squinted and realized that all the people in the songs had one thing in common — that they were living in a particularly anxious, raw time. I mean I'm just a photographer. I just kind of shine a light on things.
Q: You're taking snapshots.
A: Yeah, in my own way. I just try to stay as truthful to it as possible.
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 707-280-8014 or .
Let It Bleed : Recording In A Small Mexico City Studio Helped Chuck Prophet Get Aggressive
When San Francisco guitarist and singer Chuck Prophet set out to record ¡Let Freedom Ring! [Yep Roc] last spring, he assumed a change of environment, specifically Mexico City, would inspire him and add some manic energy to the album. He didn't count on periodic power outages ruining takes at Estudio 19, the oldschool studio he picked to lay down tracks, nor a 6.4 earthquake shaking the building's foundations. And nobody expects a pandemic.
"What I didn't predict was that the swine flu scare would start three days after we arrived," Prophet says. "The CNN paranoia, if you crank that stuff up to 11, makes everybody start to feel a little off. People got itchy. We put on blue masks and had a driver take us to the studio."
Also, according to producer Greg Leisz, Prophet didn't remember how small (roughly 12 feet by 20 feet) the high-ceiling main room was at Estudio 19. Reacting to his last record, Soap and Water, which included sections with arranged strings and a children's choir, Prophet wanted to dial things down. The former member of '80s L.A. cowpunk band Green on Red wanted a light touch and a raw performance. Normally, tight spaces complicate the situation. But with a few deft arrangements of equipment and a willingness to use bleed and leakage to their advantage, the musicians and engineers working on ¡Let Freedom Ring! made it sound both spacious and fully charged.
"People think isolation is the way to go," says Jason Carmer, who engineered the album. "But getting the bleed reinforces the stereo imagery. You can hear the guitars from the perspectives of all the mics in the room. I find that the bleed gives you great depth of field."
The whole album was recorded in one general formation in the main room to help capture a live feel. While there were some guitar overdubs later, and pedal steel and fiddle tracks were laid down separately to add extra color and tone to songs like "What Can a Mother Do," the aim was to capture raw performances.
Electrified opener "Sonny Liston's Blues" was a completely live take. Chuck occupied the right corner. His guitar, usually a Squier Telecaster, which he favors for its simplicity, was plugged into a pedal board and run into an amp, usually a Fender Princeton Reverb or a Vox AC30, which stayed in the main room and was recorded through a RCA 77DX ribbon mic. An Ibanez AD-80 analog delay was sometimes plugged in to provide a vintage slapback feel on some of Prophet's solos. Baffles were then set up to cover his Neumann U 47 vocal mic (run through a GML preamp with a Urei LA-3A compressor), chosen because the rich, warm sound worked well with Prophet's Tom Petty-esque voice.
"Both the mic and Chuck's voice have character, so I wanted to capture that," says Carmer. "It helped deliver the smashing, classic vocals of old records that we were looking for."
Drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter, who played on Springsteen's "Born to Run," set up a borrowed '60s Gretsch drum kit across the room, miked with a mono U 87 placed between the beater and snare that "pulled it all in," according to Carmer, and added a spaciousness to the recording. Guitarist Tom Ayres, bassist Rusty Miller, and Leisz, who occasionally added another guitar line, squeezed in the middle of the room. Their amps were placed in the machine room or lounge, with doors left slightly ajar to capture some bleed. Everything was tracked according to its orientation, says Carmer, which meant they could capture the reflection of the space.
To accentuate the live energy in the room, lots of compression was added to the guitar tracks via Neve 1073s and UA 1176s. It really pricked up the guitar lines snaking through the rave-up "Where the Hell is Henry?"
"The general modus operandi was to go for it and be aggressive," says Carmer. "[Compression] helped give it an authentic feel but also trash it up a bit."
Prophet and others half-jokingly referred to the studio as a state-of-theart room from 1957, and while there's some truth to that, the studio's cache of vintage gear and mics added a lot of character. A vintage Ampeg SVT added powerful reverb, and Carmer especially enjoyed using Pultec EQP- 1As on kick, snare, toms, rooms, guitars, and bass. More importantly, the somewhat cramped space—from the overflowing studio to the courtyard where they'd eat tacos for lunch—gave them a sense of unity of purpose.
"There was so much chaos outside the studio that when we got in there and the power was on and we could lay down a track, there was a certain teenage energy," Prophet says. "It reminded me of being in the studio with my first band."
!Let Freedom Ring!
Chuck Prophet's old band, Green On Red, enjoyed a cult following in the '80s and early '90s, and the same can be said of the solo career he's maintained since 1990. The San Francisco songwriter may not have tons of fans, but the ones who continue to follow his eclectic path were rewarded with 2007's Soap And Water and the recent Let Freedom Ring, an album title that's meant to be taken with a grain of salt, given its protest-as-patriotism lyrics.
If it sounds country, then that's what it is, you know — its a country song. – Kris Kristofferson
Posted on | January 5, 2010 | No Comments
1. Chuck Prophet is not a country singer, doesn't claim to be. In fact, his new record, Let Freedom Ring!, is more of a tribute to the birth of rock and roll than anything, with its shades of Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent. However, it doesn't necessarily take a country singer to sing a country song, as he proves on the second track, "What Can A Mother Do?". Prophet has called these "political songs for non-political people", and his gentle treatment of loss here strikes a chord. This is not a song about people from the country, but a song for people from America's rural areas, which gives it all the qualification it needs.
2. Chuck recorded Let Freedom Ring! in Mexico City with Greg Leisz (who produced Dave Alvin's King of California) at the helm. He sought help from original E Street drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter and, on this song, ex-Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins. Her lilting vocals and swooning fiddle give its shuffling rhythm a nice drawl. Prophet speaks of an "only child", who was "born to run" (pun intended, as drummer Carter gave that song its signature heft). "Unwanted in seventeen states", the child wanders around the country while Prophet wonders about her parents, whose baby is "never coming home". He moves on to tell the story of a youngest child, who scrapped for everything he could get growing up. By the time he enlisted, Prophet notes, he was "three times a dad". The chorus implies his death, and Prophet's subtle mention of his occupation makes clear his feelings on war.
3. Prophet finishes by noting the presence of "Jesus on the billboard" and how we have pounded our fists at the sky in vain, asking for some relief from this world. Finishing with the now loaded chorus, he shrugs his shoulders, and the song enjoys one last bit of music before fading away. This is not an overtly political song, as Chuck shows that the parents of runaways and fallen soldiers go through the same thing. Loss is one thing that makes us human, and this simple jaunt carries that simple message, with just enough sugar to make it go down eas
Review: Chuck Prophet at the Continental Club
Chuck Prophet likes to wax sarcastic in between songs. His first wisecrack during a monster Saturday set at the Continental Club — the second of back-to-back nights — was a riff on virtual reality.
"Go home tonight and check your Friendster page," Prophet said. (Don't you mean Facebook?) "How many friends do you need? How many people would actually pick you up at the airport? Now, get rid of the rest."
Then the San Francisco slacker and his four-piece band, including wife Steffie Finch on keyboards and backing vocals, laid into a cover of Alejandro Escovedo's "Always A Friend," which Prophet co-wrote, along with the majority of Escovedo's triumphant "Real Animal" album.
Prophet is perhaps better known for his collaborations with other musicians, including Austin's Kelly Willis, than he is for the nine solo albums he's put out. But "Soap and Water," from 2007, yielded an appearance on David Letterman, and this year's "Let Freedom Ring," a 25th anniversary update of the American Dream proffered by Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," has garnered critical acclaim.
Prophet played heavy doses of both albums Saturday, in a dynamite display of workmanlike rock. Prophet stabbed his trusty Fender Squier like a hoodlum in a knifefight, as he grunted and winced through his character-driven songs, vacillating between a traditional mic and one that made his voice sound like it was amplified through a blowhorn.
"Steve, who I guess is head of security here," Prophet said, presumably referring to Continental owner Steve Wertheimer, "says there's been a lot of bootlegging lately. I'd only ask, because this is how we make our living," Prophet continued, feigning seriousness, "that you film this one. Because no one likes new songs."
That disclaimer about identity theft was followed by "Hot Talk," a song about a shady impersonator, with Dire Straits undertones. Meanwhile, "Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)," about a treacherous vamp, conveyed double-meaning when Finch repeatedly sang the outro at Prophet, "You could make a doubter out of Jesus."
But for my money I'll take the opener, "Sonny Liston's Blues," wherein Prophet echoed the words of the boxer in the lead up to his memorable bout with Muhammad Ali. Prophet sang them as if to dupe you into thinking he wasn't the smart aleck he seemed: "I'm a man of few words, baby/ I think by now you've heard `em all."
AP Wire Service
Best of 2009 Overlooked CD's
" Let Freedom Ring!"
Chuck Prophet (Yep Roc)
Chuck Prophet chose a studio in Mexico City to record his ninth studio album, and even from a distance, the situation on the home front looked grim.
" Let Freedom Ring!" portrays a land of orange alerts and car alarms with blood on the sheets and asbestos in the Kool-Aid. The river's rising, stores disappear and dreams don't extend beyond Saturday night. "Who's going to miss you when you're gone?" Prophet asks.
Depressing stuff. As an antidote, Prophet offers stabs of guitars to propel a defiant Stones-style strut, and gradually the mood improves.
Past the halfway mark, Prophet turns his attention to a nightclub dialogue and pairs it with a dance beat on "Hot Talk." Two songs later, the backing vocalists are singing "Shoo-be-doo-wah" on "Good Time Crowd." The final song is "Leave the Window Open," which finds Prophet engaged in pillow talk, with no mention of car alarms.
-Steven Wine, AP
Best of 2009 by Anthony DeCurtis
Chuck Prophet has been making terrific records since he started out with the raw-and-ready L.A. band Green on Red nearly a quarter century ago. Let Freedom Ring is the latest in that long line, and it takes a place of pride. The title tells you that, once again, this album centers on Prophet's favorite subject: America. He recorded the album amid the quotidian chaos of Mexico City, but guess what: One side of the border turns out to be not that much different from the other. If it's chaos you're after, Prophet understands that you need look no further than the local news. In his own good-humored, ramshackle way, Prophet earns his last name.
¡Let Freedom Ring!
As America continues to pillage itself, simply holding on now qualifies as hoping for the best. With his richest album in a long career, Chuck Prophet manages to capture that cruel truth while avoiding traps on both sides, steering clear of falsely dressed-up, teeth-whitened optimism and the simmering anger of knee-jerk cynicism. By looking at the stagnating disillusion from the outside, Prophet's ¡Let Freedom Ring! is the album for our times, weaving together the failures of this American dream with its fraying cords of hope — what Bruce Springsteen captured so well during the dismal Reagan years (and failed so miserably at repeating on this year's Working On A Dream).
Recorded in the spring amid swine-flu panic and an earthquake in Mexico City, on equipment Prophet describes as "state-of-the-art, for 1958," the record is no-frills, timeless rock `n' roll, urgent and sharp, but also soothing like an after-work beer. The title track is a barroom rocker, with Prophet singing, Let there be darkness, let there be light, as the hawk cripples the dove over a joyous slide-guitar riff. "American Man" is garage-rock-infused with a little Tom Petty drawl, catchy "ooh-wee-ooh" backup vocals and more excellent licks from the former Green on Red guitarist.
In recording what he calls "a political album for nonpolitical people," Prophet bypasses slogans and battle cries for the simpler truths: that even staring down the gun barrels of Wall Street's robber barons and Washington's warmongers, redemption is no further than friends, family, love, and good times. Life is only so long, Prophet sings on the album closer. Don't let it rub you raw. (Yep Roc)
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Chuck Prophet has been releasing solo albums for two decades, but little in his past prepares the listener for this powerhouse song cycle. Particularly since that past has often relegated Prophet to the role of catalyst, midwife or sidekick, submerging his artistic identity within someone else's.
Recently he served as most valuable player on Alejandro Escovedo's Real Animal, co-writing all the songs on an album that served as Escovedo's musical memoir. Before that, he collaborated with Kelly Willis on Translated from Love, where he produced and played guitar as well as sharing writing credit with her on half the material. Even in Green on Red, the 1980s band that first earned Prophet some attention, he was overshadowed by founding frontman Dan Stuart.
At the point in a veteran journeyman's career where one doesn't expect surprises, he has delivered a knockout, a "State of the Union" album that combines self-assured swagger and bittersweet vulnerability in equal measure. It's a musical meditation on a particular time, and a particular country. And that country is this one, though, as the punctuation of the title suggests, Prophet and band (including former Springsteen drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter) recorded the project in Mexico City, during a time of drug wars, swine flu and even an earthquake.
With co-producer Greg Leisz (the guitarist who has so often played the MVP role that Prophet has for others), the band entered what that songwriter describes as "a state of the art studio (for 1958 or so)." There's an immediacy to the interplay that transcends technological limitations and a perspective on the American condition reflected from the vantage of another culture. Not only does distance lend perspective, but sometimes you need to shake things up to see things straight.
The flurry of guitar jabs that open the album with "Sonny Liston's Blues" shows the music coming out swinging from the outset, though the song's tender interlude suggests the emotional extremes the music will continue to encompass. It's a love song of sorts, sung "in ways I just cannot express," to a woman who has fingered the fallen champ in a lineup—mistakenly he claims. Such a jumble of emotion, such an ellipsis of detail, such a storytelling richness from the perspective of a narrator who describes himself as "a man of few words." Such brute force. Such open heart.
The title cut and "American Man" suggest the album's all-American anthemic sweep, yet this America sounds most like Los Angeles, where the gap between the fantasy and the reality runs particularly deep. You can hear echoes of Tom Petty, Joe Henry and particularly Randy Newman in Prophet's phrasing—three artists who came to L.A. from somewhere else, yet have come to musically embody the city in distinct but interrelated ways.
Like theirs, Prophet's music has both a hard-edged irony and a soulful empathy, a way of inhabiting characters from the inside out. Take the title track, where the Stonesish riffing and rhythmic propulsion suggest a patriotic fist pumper, but the social Darwinism of the lyrics deflates such jingoism: "Let there be markets, let `em run wild, as the sisters of mercy just laugh. All the lost brothers can drink themselves blind, while good fortune breaks hard work in half."
These are songs of lost brothers and sisters, of lives lived in the margins, in the shadows. Where the uptempo songs that sound heroic on the surface often mask a darker thematic underbelly, the warmth of the album's balladry frequently carries a sucker punch. "What Can a Mother Do" has the sweetness of a country melody, punctuated by fiddle and vocal harmony from Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), yet the turn of a phrase about a young girl "unwanted in seventeen states" belies the music's carefree spirit.
Similarly, the waltz of sad perseverance in "You and Me Baby (Holding On)" and the unflinching tenderness of "Barely Exist" (which would have fit just fine on Escovedo's album) hit even harder than the uptempo fare, while more raucous rockers such as "Where the Hell is Henry," "Hot Talk" and the retro/New Wave "Good Time Crowd" have a jittery urgency, a brittleness beneath the power riffing. There's a tension throughout between the literary command of the lyrics and the electric crackle of the arrangements, as if the album took a lifetime to write and a couple hours to record.
Ultimately, it's a work that demands to be heard as a whole rather than a selection of cuts to download. And it ends on the perfect note of grace with "Leave the Window Open," a nighttime benediction after a long day's journey. "Life is only so long," sings Prophet. "Don't let it rub you raw." Words to live by.
°Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc Records)
°Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc Records)
Chuck Prophet has been banging out a living in the music industry since he was a teenager, when he toured the world with cult roots act Green on Red. He's released eight previous solo albums, all filled with songs that should have seen him mentioned in the same breath as Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
On his ninth album, the crack guitarist (and former crack junkie) might just accomplish that. °Let Freedom Ring! is a study of the failed American dream, an indictment of misplaced patriotism and a fantastic rock `n' roll record. It's raw in spirit but refined in presentation: it combines the feeling of being thrashed out in a garage with attention to detail—touches of fiddle, shoop-shoop backup vocals, harmonica and piano—that belies its tossed-off attitude.
The ironically anthemic title track looks at a time where "the hawk cripples the dove," while Barely Exist is a moving, eloquent to Mexican immigrant workers, and the scorching guitar on the dirty boogie Where the Hell Is Henry? is balanced with the measured, Stonesy strut of the sultry come-on Hot Talk. Bombastic and tender, this might be Prophet's best work yet. `Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2
Chuck Prophet at the 8X10,
End Of the World Blues: Chuck Prophet at the 8X10, Nov. 30
By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/3/2009
If Randy Newman had grown up not as the heir of Hollywood composers but as a scruffy garage rocker and had recorded an album about the United States in 2009, that record might have sounded like Chuck Prophet's Let Freedom Ring. It would have had the same untrustworthy third-person narrators and bitterly comic commentators; it would have had the same perky melodies arranged in the same passed-by styles of the past; it would have had the same sharp powers of description and the same barely constrained outrage.
Whether he's singing through the persona of a barely articulate boxer, the mother of a foolhardy child, an unemployed husband, the ominously quiet kid at school, or the couple on one last credit-card spree, Prophet inhabits each character with just the right diction, just the right guitar riff, just the right mix of anger and hope.
It's one of the year's best rock'n'roll albums, and it brought out a good-sized crowd to the 8X10 to see Prophet on a Monday night. The tall singer-guitarist, with his scarecrow hair, baby-cheek face, and black blazer over a black vest, began the night banging out garage-rock chord changes on his cream-colored Telecaster. He took his time getting to the vocals; assuming the voice of Sonny Liston, he finally mumbled, "I'm a man of few words, baby," allowing his strangled guitar to say what the boxer couldn't. Then suddenly all the noise fell away and the mumble landed on a lovely melody as Prophet/Liston sang, "What I'm trying to tell you is how much I loved you in that dress." This moment of grace was soon swallowed up in amplifier distortion again, but its memory lingered.
So it went all night, moments of unguarded feeling and melody would surface amid the roiling waves like strange deep-sea creatures, only to submerge again. His choice of cover songs included Iggy Pop's sardonic "I'm Bored" but also Bruce Springsteen's valentine, "For You." His choice of his old songs included both an anthem of alienation, "Automatic Blues," and an anthem of possibility, "Age of Miracles."
The selections from the new album included the dystopian title track, a vision of capitalism run amok: "Let there be markets," he snarled over a knotty guitar riff, "let `em run wild/ all the lost brothers can drink themselves blind." But he also sang the new album's best song, "You and Me Baby (Holding On)," named after a Newman number and borrowing Newman's curdled Tin Pan Alley delivery. Prophet began bleakly, "Marriage on the skids and the folks ain't doing well," but rallied for the chorus, singing, "We can still dream like it's Saturday night/ we're holding on," to a major-chord glimpse of sunshine.
The evening was marred by Prophet's constant bickering with the soundman about the monitors, but his backing band (guitarist James DePrato, bassist Kevin White, drummer Todd Roper and keyboardist/singer/wife Stephanie Finch) sounded terrific in the house speakers whenever a song finally started. The highlight of the evening came early: a rampaging, hook-laden version of "Always a Friend," the tune Prophet co-wrote for Alejandro Escovedo's album last year—the best Rolling Stones song of the decade.
Made in Mexico; Bringing it all Back Home
Prophet's ninth solo album shares its title with a conservative think tank, a Barry Manilow song, a jazz album and a civil rights box set. If this were a tick the box personality test, the last one's closest: its 11 tracks were written swiftly in the fretful run-up to the US Presidential election. But though lyrically it touches on the socio-political, the freedom here is about being unrestrained, uninhibited, alive. Prophet's not sounded this loose and immediate on a studio record in a long while (it helps to have recorded it swiftly in an archaic, digital-free studio in Mexico City). But though he's focused on rocking out with his fine band, which includes guest backing singer Kelly Stoltz, the songs are excellent - among them You and Me Baby (Holding on), Barely Exist and American Man, channelling Tom Petty, Mink DeVille and early Stones. Greg Leisz co-produced.—Sylvie Simmons
"Help me" yelps Chuck Prophet, midway through the opening song, And while the strutting, stomping, tremolo-strafed "Sonny Liston's Blues" is ostensibly about the fallen boxer, it's images of a man on the ropes and possibly at the end of his rope, too ("What I'm trying to tell you is how much I love you"), are universal. A sense of unease and uncertainty leavened by a self-styled pugilists natural defiance, courses through these tunes. In particular, on the anthemic, glammy "American Man" the narrator has "blood on his lips and milk in my eyes" as he watches The Dream slip away; while on "Leave the Window Open" a luminous slice of jangle `n' twang, Prophet tries to hold on to a different sort of dream as he begs his woman, on both literal and figurative level, to "leave the window open, I want o take in this view and live this life before it's gone". Part narrative, part confessional, "¡Let Freedom Ring! is the sound of an artist at the top of his game.
¡Let Freedom Ring!
Chuck Prophet rarely disappoints and ¡Let Freedom Ring! is no exception. Once again, Chuck proves he's got singing chops, goo-gobs of guitar playing skills, charm to spare, fashion sense, and the instincts of a svelte cheetah when it comes to producing. Prophet and his crew recorded his ninth solo CD at a studio in Mexico City (yeah, all the cool kids are recording there now) during a swine flu outbreak. More burritos for them, I guess—"them" being guitarist Tom Ayres, bassist Rusty Miller and drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter. Chuck's phrasing has always reminded me of Lou Reed's, sort of half talking, half singing, always meaning it. He also seems to favor the ladies in the background singing the la-las and the yeah-yeahs. I like the way he exhibits a What's the god damn hurry? attitude in the way he delivers a song. I really love "American Man"—Chuck sounds a bit like Tom Petty on this one but with a lot more edge. "What Can A Mother Do?" is hilarious lyrically ("She was unwanted in seventeen states with the engine light on and Alaskan plates") and really tuneful. I also love the rhythmic "Good Time Crowd," which features really cool vintage instrumentation and vocals. Wrapping up the album, "Leave The Window Open" is plaintive and gorgeous. "I don't want this day to end, I don't care if it rains," he sings.
Yeah, like that. Go, Chuck.
"As the rivers run over their banks . . . there's nowhere for a poor boy to hide," Chuck Prophet sings over the Stonesy riffage of the title song of his new album. This poor boy's answer to tough times is to keep rocking, which Prophet has done with distinction since the `80s, first as guitarist for the great Green on Red and now on his own. ¡Let Freedom Ring! is Prophet's personalized take on the state of the nation, mixing bracing guitar-rockers and soulful, contemplative ballads. With numbers like the wrenching immigrant's tale "Barely Exist," it's not always a pretty picture. Prophet, however, still manages to end on a hopeful note with "Leave the Window Open," his unabashed appreciation for life matched by the meaning he gives it with his sharp, unsparing music.