erasing clouds

Vic Chesnutt, Ghetto Bells

reviewed by dave heaton

Whenever Vic Chesnutt surrounds himself with musicians and producers and arrangers for a recording, he's always this close to overwhelming his weird little songs, in danger of coming up with something so overblown it cloaks the heightened emotional effect that his songs on their own can have. He walked that line with Lambchop on 1998's The Salesman and Bernadette, walked it with Widespread Panic on the two Brute albums, and walked it even more closely with Mark Howard, Patrick Warren and others on 2003's Silver Lake.

On his new album Ghetto Bells his companions include some real heavy-hitters: guitarist Bill Frisell and arranger Van Dyke Parks, to name two. And again, the album is layered with instruments and voices, so much so that at the start you're inclined to wish for just Vic and a guitar doing these same songs. Bear with the album past the first couple songs, though, and you'll get used to it; you'll grow to hear that these musicians really understand the emotions of the songs, and more than overshadowing his songs, they're supporting them in ways that bring out the feelings instead of covering them up.

They back off when it's the best thing to do, like on the stark "What Do You Mean?", where the guitar-and-voices setting accentuates the feelings of both sadness and joy in the lyrical expression of confusion. On the longer songs the musicians especially earn their keep, playing at one of Chesnutt's favorite tempos, slow as molasses, and building an atmosphere that beautifully complements his songs. "Forthright" - its lyrics mostly descriptive of a scene but also a request for honesty - is simply one of Chesnutt's most moving vocal performances ever. The similarly sprawling "Rambunctious Cloud" is also especially powerful, with accordion comfortably paired with Chesnutt's slow-motion consideration of a rain storm. That song, like Chesnutt's catalogue in general, is an example of the most powerful sort of lyric-writing, with words that are suggestive of so many ideas and feelings but also succinct and simple.


this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds