Chuck Prophet

The Hurting Business (Hightone)

Rapping and scratching on an album released by Hightone -- Hightone? The torch-bearing label for all roots music? What's going on here? No, it's not a hip-hop album, but it is something quite remarkable. Call it roots music with soul. And it may only be February, but it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that The Hurting Business should have a place on this and other critics' Top 10 lists for 2000. Let's just hope that it's not ignored by everyone in America who isn't a press schmuck, since, unfortunately, the solo career of the former Green on Red guitar player (like that of his former bandmate, Chris Cacavas) has so far been shamefully neglected everywhere besides Europe.

This, Prophet's fifth solo release, shows a talent fully realized, both in performance and songwriting. His skillful guitar playing was used to great effect on Kelly Willis' last album, What I Deserve, and also on recent works by Cake, John Wesley Harding, the Silos, Bob Neuwirth, and others, but it's on his own material that it shines the most. Never overtly wankerish, he doesn't need to show off; he just startles with the amazing tones he gets from his instrument. He doesn't even need to put his guitar front and center all the time. Sometimes, he lets an organ or pedal steel or Mellotron (an instrument that's rarely used as well as it is here) or that scratching and rapping take the starring role.

His playing always serves the song, not the other way around. And these are great songs, both lyrically and musically surprising. He blends disparate styles from country to hip-hop to rock to folk to blues to soul in a way that's never less than natural. Unlike the talented yet still overrated Beck, Prophet never descends into self-conscious pastiche; and it never seems like he's trying to deliver a musical history lesson to those who suffer from attention deficit disorder. But he does manage to catch you off guard and take you to unexpected places. Songs often play against their titles, turning clichés inside out. "Lucky" starts out like you might suspect -- "Well, I'd like to get Lucky" -- and then, just as you're convinced the song's about the stereotypical desire for that elusive element, it turns a corner: "I'd like to get Lucky/Get my fingers around his throat/So if you see Lucky/Tell him that I asked if he can float." And once he's made you believe that he's just a caustic bastard, he goes into the very sweet but never schmaltzy number "God's Arms," and he does it without you ever doubting that it's the work of the same artist. Instead, you realize that you've come across one fascinating cat who's produced an album with enough layers to take at least a dozen listens to uncover even half the wonderful things about it.

 
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