For the next several weeks Laughter will be featuring some of its favorite records from 2009, leading up to a year-end finale where we’ll play all the stuff we’ve liked most this year. Selections could possibly include reissues, but for the most part we’ll be considering only new recordings.
Our first album of the week is Vic Chesnutt’s At the Cut, just released at the end of September on Constellation. I had decided that Nudge’s As Good As Gone was going to be the first selection, but because both intern Jackie and I had been listening to At the Cut a lot, we went ahead with Vic’s record instead.
And it’s a hard record not to like. Chesnutt’s vocals on the opening “Coward” at first sound like a whispered confessional or an embarrassing admission, but when his backing band strikes up their violins, his confession transforms into a cathartic roar. In just seconds Vic Chesnutt and his band convert the quietude typical of many singer-songwriters into an epic sprawl of shrieking, heavily distorted guitar, hammered drums, and shouted vocals. It’s a shocking and unexpected move that is not again repeated anywhere on the album. The influence of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion can be felt, but their dramatic frills and exaggerated qualities are held in check by the shape and precision of Vic’s writing.
Which isn’t to say that the album doesn’t ever rock again. It does, but in sweet and succinct moments. Both “Chinaberry Tree” and “Philip Guston” put the electric guitar at center stage. The former finds its voice in an extended solo that beams across Chesnutt’s vocals like a lightning strike, and the latter chugs and screams like an Einstürzende Neubauten song, except the band never quite pitches itself into the absolute chaos of noise or the flamboyance of theater. Ornate orchestrations and tight arrangements populate nearly every song, both pulling against each other and generating waves of tension. But, Chesnutt cuts loose sometimes, too, and manages to pull a couple of straight rock tunes out of his hat. “Concord Country Jubilee” sounds like it might’ve fit in on a Bob Dylan record and “Flirted With You All My Life” finds its strength in its lyrics and simple melody.
And the lyrics are probably what most people will think of when talking about this record. After all, Chesnutt opens himself up a lot on this record, referencing personal tragedies and simple moments with his family in the process. Elsewhere he references an American painter and apparently fits Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Henry Darger, and W.H. Auden all into one song (“It Is What It Is”). I’m neither well-read enough nor interested in pursuing all those lyrical avenues, but without them At the Cut is impressive. In fact, the closing song, “Granny,” features one of the album’s most stunning lyrical moments and there’s not a bit of Kafka or Shakespeare to it: “She said, ‘You are the light of my life / and the beat of my heart.'” Half of that song’s appeal is its directness and the warmth of the scene it describes, the other half is the fact that Vic can deliver that line honestly and without a hint of banality. But, lyrics are only half the story, and that Vic and his band blend so many styles so well is an accomplishment worth noting, too. The result is one of my favorite records so far this year.
There’s plenty of great music featured this week, including more than a few cuts selected by interns Jackie and Anthony. Jackie ran the boards for the first hour of the show and did an incredible job. The second hour of the show features some abstract drone things, samples pulled from shows about aliens and UFOs, and the phenomenal talents of ‘O’ Rang and Cex. The former features Lee Harris and Paul Webb, both formerly of Talk Talk. Fans of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock will definitely want to check them out.
If any of you have an album from 2009 that you think is particularly good and worth featuring, leave a comment or send an email our way. We’d definitely love to know what you’ve been listening to.
We’ll have more great music for you next week. Thanks for stopping by!
01. Vic Chesnutt “Coward” from At the Cut (2009) on Constellation
02. Caspian “Of Foam and Wave” from Tertia (2009) on The Myclene Sheath
03. Califone “1928” from all my friends are funeral singers (2009) on Dead Oceans
04. Vic Chesnutt “Chinaberry Tree” from At the Cut (2009) on Constellation
05. Hallelujah the Hills “The Might Come Back Club” from Colonial Drones (2009) on Misra
06. Wooden Birds “Bad” from Magnolia (2009) on Barsuk
07. A Place to Bury Strangers “In Your Heart” from Exploding Head (2009) on Mute
08. Beat Circus “Coney Island Creepshow” from Dreamland (2008) on Cuneiform
09. Karl Blau “Nothing New” from Zebra (2009) on K
10. Glenn Jones “Dead Reckoning” from Barbecue Bob in Fishtown (2009) on Strange Attractors Audio House
11. Nudge “Two Hands” from As Good As Gone (2009) on Kranky
12. Vic Chesnutt “Flirted With You All My Life” from At the Cut (2009) on Constellation
13. Haptic “Two” from The Medium (2009) on Flingco Sound
14. Nmperign “Fault” from Ommatidia (2009) on Intransitive
15. Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Liles “Torch Song 1” from Torch Songs (2007) on Die Stadt
16. Human Bell “A Change in Fortunes” from Human Bell (2008) on Thrill Jockey
17. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney “Blood Embrace” from Superwolf (2005) on Drag City
18. ‘O’ Rang “Loaded Values” from Herd of Instinct (1994) on Echo
19. Cex “Roland Park Acid” from Bataille Royale (2009) on Must Finish