Prophet Ear

Ex-Green on Red mainstay Chuck Prophet continues his solo metamorphosis with The Hurting Business

"Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious. I hear records nowadays and the fades are like a minute. If you go back and listen to James Brown or Charles Wright, Betty Harris, Lee Dorsey, any of the stuff I was soaking in the couple years where I was working toward this record, they're like two and a half minutes long -- that's it. And when they're over, all you want to do is put the needle back to the beginning. That's the kind of record I wanted to make."

Prophet should take heart; The Hurting Business is exactly that kind of album, one that invites frequent and repeated listenings, yet provides new revelations with each spin.

Kicking off with the funky Ennio Morricone-influenced opener, "Rise" ("A change, a change is gonna come/Those very words once left me numb"), Prophet fashions a sometimes dark, often funny narrative of modern life, seething with urban tension, and sprinkled with caustic insights and pop culture references.

Prophet comes clean: "Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious."
Prophet comes clean: "Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious."
Pills and booze: Prophet (left) and Stuart with Green on Red in 1989
Peter Anderson
Pills and booze: Prophet (left) and Stuart with Green on Red in 1989

The title track, an insistent farfisa-maraca number that hints at Beck, were Mr. Hansen in the midst of a serious Sir Douglas Quintet jag. A he-did/she-did tale of fraught relationships and bruised romance ("You hurt me, baby, and I hurt you/Sometimes we fake, sometimes we jab/Sometimes we bounce right off the mat"), it takes its name from the unlikeliest of sources, a Mike Tyson quote.

"It was during a press conference after he bit off Evander Holyfield's ear. They asked him if he wanted to apologize, if he felt any remorse about what he did. His reaction was just belligerent and insolent: 'You understand, I'm in the hurting business, that's my job,'" says Prophet in sotto voce, imitating Tyson. "He thought he was doing his job in there. I liked that. I don't know how it relates to what boys and girls do to each other, but it ended up in my notebook."

Prophet's vocals -- which normally split the difference between Tom Petty's redneck whine and Kurt Wallinger's British drone -- take on a variety of hues here: the somber baritone of "Rise"; the funky drawl of "Diamond Jim"; the angelic croon of 'Dyin' All Young."

On "It Won't Be Long," Prophet's singing recalls Iggy Pop's dry, craggy tone. Ironically, the song is a more successful stab at the kind of moody string atmospherics that the middle-aged Stooge attempted on last year's career nadir, Avenue B.

The song's theme, like much of Business, is imbued with a sense of irreverent topicality -- in this case, it's the world of the confrontational daytime talk show. "What we were trying to imagine was what the mother lode of all hangovers would be like if you stood naked on Jenny Jones and embarrassed yourself in front of a whole nation," says Prophet, breaking into a coarse laugh. "What would the morning after that be like, when you realized what you'd actually done?"

While the subject matter may be bleak -- Prophet characterizing it as "trailer park trash with high Arbitron ratings" and "the sad beauty of freak encounters recollected" -- the song retains a light, almost absurdist lyrical quality: "I like T-Bone Walker/I like Wonder bread/I like to quote back in your face/All the things you never said."

Elsewhere, Hammond organ colors the deathly revenge anthem "Lucky" ("I'd like to get Lucky/Get my fingers 'round his throat"), its dark, smoky verses and skewed sonics surrendering to a chorus that arches up toward classic pop territory.

Not surprisingly, the record does stumble upon some of Tom Waits' patented gruff 'n' clang, with the jagged blues and vocoder/megaphone intonations of "La Paloma" and the funky "Shore Patrol" (another vaguely Beck-ish sounding number).

At his best, Prophet seems capable of synthesizing his many influences -- musical and lyrical -- into a uniquely original vision. When he does, the results are the apogee of understated brilliance, as on the album's centerpiece, "Apology."

A languid mesh of warm bass and Mellotron, the song takes the universal human need for forgiveness and turns the concept on its ear with a litany of comical examples: "CBS from the MTV," "the shoulder from the road," "the Cancer from the Scorpio."

But the moment that best captures Prophet's ironic worldview comes after a verse in which he opines that "someday soon the Vatican is gonna call" -- an allusion to the recent papal apology for the Catholic Church's toleration of the Holocaust. Prophet follows that heady reference with a bridge that asks, "How can I swallow every little thing she says?/She don't even know Elvis from El Vez."

It's the kind of uncommonly literate moment that bridges hard-edged romanticism and precise musical syntax, while plumbing the depths of pop arcana.

"When you start talking about when the Jews are going to get an apology form the Vatican, you can't follow that up with anything too heavy," says Prophet. "You gotta get into something as pathetic as falling out with a girl because she doesn't know the difference between Elvis and El Vez. Some people, man, that's how small their world is."

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