I can see the Trivial Pursuit question as if it were printed on a card in my hand right now. “Which Athens, Georgia resident discovered Vic Chesnutt and produced his first two albums?” TP has this way of asking questions with context clues that usually lead one to an “Occam’s Razor” conclusion, `the simplest answer is usually the correct one.’ Yet, the end result of my message doesn’t lie in crediting Michael Stipe so much as it is positing that it really could have gone either way. Who’s to say, that with Vic Chesnutt’s determination, flair and knack for knowing everybody, that it couldn’t have been a young Chesnutt who discovered R.E.M. at the 40-Watt Club in the mid ’80s? Regardless, Athens is seemingly the perfect place for Chesnutt and his skewed storytelling / songwriting. In his decades-spanning career, Chesnutt has collaborated with all manner of musicians, including a recent album on Constellation with post-rock stalwarts Godspeed You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, but it is back in his adopted hometown of Athens that he’s found his most compatible backing band.
Dark Developments is a Vic Chesnutt album to be sure, as he wrote the music and lyrics, but the credit on the album’s cover (or should I say back cover and spine), go to Vic, Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums. For sure it’s a mouthful, but it’s also one of the more perfectly balanced blends of musical style in Chesnutt’s storied career. Songs in Chesnutt’s repertoire seem to lean a bit toward the dour, while always remaining literate and inventive. Elf Power’s psychedelic zaniness, a seeming Elephant 6 band trait, elevates Chesnutt’s twisted stories into the realm of the whimsical, even when the lyrics are shouting the most bilious of invectives.
Without Elf Power’s jangly presence, including bells, whistles and backing vocals, opener “Mystery” could have turned into a funereal dirge, but instead plays more like a round robin sing-along. Chesnutt balances the introspective with the absurd throughout the album, leaning more toward the latter with songs like “Bilocating Dog” and “Phil the Fiddler.” But the heart of Dark Developments lies in the timing of this album. Okay, so I’ve inadvertently pointed out that this review is going up months too late, but this album was released in late October, a mere week before the Presidential Election. Chesnutt’s songs seem to teeter between the built-up frustration of the past eight years and hope for the future. The former can be heard in the seeming ode to Bush, “Little Fucker,” while the latter is more represented by the presence of Elf Power’s lighthearted instrumentalism. This balance makes this album both a joy for longtime Chesnutt fans, as well as a possible gateway to new listeners.
I am reminded of Patton Oswalt’s comedic bit on artistic towns. He calls out Athens, along with Portland, Ore., Madison, Wisc. and Austin, Texas as being “a magical fairy bubble of sanity in the middle of …shit,” warning that you can’t ever really leave these cities because they ruin you for the `outside world.’ Chesnutt has never had to go very far to find willing participants in his musical endeavors, even ending up in some of those Oswalt-ian sister cities, but he didn’t have to leave home at all to find his latest and most entertaining collaborators yet.
Nick Lowe- At My Age
John Prine- Fair and Square
Bob Dylan- Oh Mercy