Friday, November 20, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: Skitter on Take-off

Up until a few months ago, everybody seemed to have forgotten about Vic Chesnutt. That's kind of a weird thing to say about someone that most people have never heard of, but the singer and guitarist did have a brief moment in the sun -- the indie sun, at least -- in the mid-nineties. At the Cut, released in September, garnered Chesnutt some sudden press, partly because it was a rough, uncompromisingly gut-churning album, partly because it featured Guy Picciotto and members of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Less than a month later, he dropped his follow-up, Skitter on Take-off, like a crumpled receipt fluttering out of his pocket as he reached for his wallet. Lost in the rush of deserved praise for At the Cut, Skitter on Take-off seems to have gone largely unnoticed. That’s a shame, because the album is brilliant.

Where At the Cut was rich and fairly heavy, Skitter on Take-off inhabits a pervasive, haunted emptiness matched only by Smog's Bill Callahan. The entire album sounds off-handed, casual, like Chesnutt is literally making up each song as he goes along. This is underlined by the fractured poetry of his lyrics and his simple but unusual melodic sense. His melodies refuse to resolve, lingering nervously, repeating themselves, but his resigned tone, contemptuous and wounded, animates them with a cold authority. Chesnutt has an affinity for anti-romantic, even ugly turns of phrase like "I was taking little chunks of your love and squirreling them away," lines that read terribly on the page but sound uncomfortably appropriate in his ragged, tremulous voice. “Feast in the time of plague,” he laments on the opener. “You were a beautiful pig.” That's the despairingly practical attitude that pervades the album: mournful and lonesome but harder, wise now, and ready to move on.

Skitter on Take-off
makes astonishing use of silence -- it's everywhere on this record, oppressively still, gathering, and Chesnutt's unadorned music, his warped guitar and thin voice are barely a candle flickering against the black. Jonathan Richman's production is brilliant, and it's hardly even there. Always a master of minimalism, he strips away every ornamentation, every unnecessary element, making the greatest use yet of Chesnutt’s oddly skeletal, almost chord-free plucking style. Richman virtually leaves the state -- Chesnutt sounds so utterly alone on the album that it's hard to believe there actually was a producer, or even another soul within a hundred miles. Outside of some distant brushed drums on a few songs and Richman's mumbled voice on the introduction to “Dimples” (an inclusion that adds to the casual, DIY spirit of the record but ultimately damages its aesthetic of remoteness and alienation), the album is all Vic Chesnutt, a man alone, making a heartsick sound with just enough notes to be considered music. You can feel the hunger, the disquietude and unease in the small muscles of your neck. Skitter on Take-off is not a fun listen -- it's not good background music – but it's very powerful.

It takes an extraordinarily rare talent to compel and captivate with no tools, no tricks, no impressive displays. Chesnutt doesn't perform or entertain -- it sounds like he made the record by mysterious compulsion and he doesn’t even know you’re listening. Skitter on Take-off is in the mode of Robert Johnson's recordings -- quiet, worried-man blues glowing hesitantly in the dark, shaky, uncertain, spare -- just enough song to keep the devil at bay. Barely at bay, and only for the moment, but for the moment that’s enough.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Carrie Underwood: Play On

From the first few slicked-up yet grungy electric guitar chords, we know we’re in for more of the same: angry bad-boyfriend songs and gelatinous ballads, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, everything sounding very, very expensive. The writing is insanely professional, and each track is so thoroughly baited with hooks it’s hard to hear the song underneath. Play On is a focus-group pop album, a hothouse flower, bioengineered at great cost to thrive on S.U.V. radios and in the endless replay of tweenage iTunes. But there’s no great single to be found, so instead it withers and dies.

"Cowboy Casanova," the catchy opening single, is an icy kiss-off to a phony dive-bar Romeo, and it sort of works, as far as it goes. Why? I’m not sure, precisely; this album adheres so slavishly to its (admittedly proven) formula that it's awfully hard to tell what, exactly, the difference between the good songs and bad songs are, since they all sound pretty much the same. So you'll have to take my word for it when I say that "Cowboy Casanova," while foot-tapping and high-spirited, lacks the elemental power of the towering single "Before He Cheats," a very similar rocking psuedo-feminist guilty pleasure, Underwood's greatest achievement to date, a radio monster that demanded to be turned up. An album like this needs exactly one of those to be a success. Play On is a failure.

It’s not all unremittingly awful; generally all the faux-shitkicking glossy country Bon Jovi stuff is half-way listenable. But brother, do the ballads ever suck. Underwood apparently has no volume knob -- she can belt angrily over polished electric guitars or she can belt sweetly over swooning strings. She blows all of her incredibly tenuous feminist credentials on "Mama's Song," which finds her saying, essentially, “Mom, you don’t have to take care of me anymore because I found a man to do it instead.” On "Change" she harangues us tunefully about being a bunch of jerks for not giving more money to charities and panhandlers. “Temporary Home” is a disgustingly manipulative ballad about orphans, single moms and old sick people, and how it’s okay that their lives suck because soon they’ll die and go up to heaven and get to play badminton with Jesus forever and ever. The slow songs on the album have, collectively, the emotional depth of a banana-walnut pancake. They will brook no sadness that can't be instantly transformed into hopeful triumph by a hooky chorus and a multi-tracked vocal.

"Someday When I Stop Loving You" is the sole exception; it's not a particularly good song, a by-the-numbers countrypolitan weeper, but by sheer virtue of being legitimately sad it's incredibly refreshing, a break from the stridently, almost obnoxiously inspirational tone of the record. Underwood can’t sell it, though -- she sings it like she's back on Idol, and the song is nothing but a showcase for her killer pipes. Underneath the everywoman hard-knock posturing, Underwood is a first-place finisher (this was proven on national television); she’s got no idea what to do with a song about losing. And if you’re not ready to lose, maybe country music isn’t the place for you.

But back to the bread and butter: "Songs Like This" is a fairly solid track, another in Underwood's endless array of kiss-offs to bad boyfriends, building to a nice turn of phrase in the chorus. ("If it wasn't for guys like you, there wouldn't be songs like this.") The rocker "Undo It" is probably the best thing on the album, despite being pretty much a wholesale rip-off of Lucinda Williams’ "Joy." We're back into Carrie's comfort zone here -- outside of her looks and her large vocal range, kicking douchebags to the curb seems to be her main talent in life. (What does it say about our culture that our most populist female stars [i.e. Idol winners] seem to find their greatest successes, artistically and commercially, in revenge songs?)

Play On is definitely not good, not horrifyingly bad, and precisely what you imagine it to be. There’s no great single, nothing that even approaches the awesome “Before He Cheats” or half of the stuff that Kelly Clarkson’s been putting out. It’s not going to happen, but it’d be awfully nice if Underwood would look to people like the aforementioned Lucinda Williams – a bad-ass independent woman who wasn’t afraid to show her vulnerability or her sense of humor – as more than a source of pilfered tunes. She needs to start looking around for somewhere to borrow a personality.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Charles Fetherolf: Giants in the Earth

It begins in darkness. Four black horizontal panels, then another four on the facing page. Then two black rectangles of equal size, then a full black splash. We're five entire pages into Charles Fetherolf's "Giants in the Earth," and we've yet to see a single drawing. Then, turning the page, we're faced with a double-spread explosion -- a chaotic spray of white against the dark, flattened and radiating like an egg on a frying pan, encircled by a thin ring expanding ever outwards. It's the act of creation, the beginning -- the Big Bang -- and it seems to have been summoned into existence by the tense and heavy emptiness of the five black pages. Fetherolf took his time, and then he said "let there be white."

"Giants in the Earth," a standalone self-published comic, is a bravura performance that attempts to and largely succeeds at telling a wordless history of the universe and the planet Earth from the dawn of the world to the dawn of man. Milky gasses expand and condense in a void, forming into planetoids. Planetoids attract and collide; one will become the earth, and another will become the moon.

If you paid any attention in your high school biology class, the rest of the story will be largely familiar. Out of the smoldering magma and simmering nutrient bath single-celled organisms form. They eventually become membranous sea creatures, which in turn develop into amphibians and struggle tentatively onto dry land. Reproduction, consumption, mutation, and creation; evolution carries through its mindless, beautiful, myriad pathways, and we watch in silent contemplation.

The concept and storytelling are ambitious and admirable enough, but what really sets "Giants in the Earth" apart from other experimental comics is the raw, simple elegance of Fetherolf’s art, his softness and grace of his inking, the richness and truth he finds in simple, austere images. His art is out of step with the times – there’s nothing hip or modern about it, none of Chris Ware’s sleek intricacy or the photo-realistic high dudgeon of recent superhero books. His work most resembles the late John Buscema: elegant, almost athletic forms, carefully observed and detailed but always spare, never an unnecessary line or shade.

The stubbornly anachronistic nature of Fetherolf’s art (along with his generally unappealing and unrepresentative cover illustrations) might go some way towards explaining why his work hasn’t been met with wider acclaim, but it’s a minor travesty. Why can companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly find space for so many idiosyncratic voices and oddball styles (some of which are, frankly, quite bad), but nothing for an audacious creator working without a net, albeit in a slightly unfashionable style? Fetherolf’s storytelling is masterful, but his use of time and space are his greatest gifts. The images that stick with you are the fraught, tense ones, where a single moment is broken into uneasy slivers: the black tentacles of a menacing octopus wending hungrily and sinuously across a stretch of panels; dinosaurs looking up past the trees at incandescent meteors that arc gracefully down towards their Triassic paradise; a lightning crack that starts a forest fire, set above the haunted eyes of early man.

“Giants in the Earth” is alive, evolving, in constant motion. It’s everything that comics – and art in general – ought to be: a world in miniature. It just so happens that this time, that world is our own.