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Published: 2005/05/08
by Pat Buzby

Ghetto Bells – Vic Chesnutt

New West Records 6071

Having a disc sneak up on you is one of the more pleasurable experiences music can offer. Vic Chesnutt's new disc does so, but he complicates the task by putting the weakest cuts up front.

It seemed clear that Chesnutt must have had something going for him to be able to get Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks to hang out in front of his trailer, but the first two cuts of Ghetto Bells, "Virginia" and "Little Caesar," made me fear that I had a dud on my hands. Parks adds typically florid strings to "Virginia" and Frisell puts some wicked guitar commentary on the fringes of "Little Caesar," but they don’t compensate for the fact that these cuts have all of the plodding creakiness of recent Dylan or Waits with little of the humor or meaning. It’s not hard to guess which political figure made Chesnutt, in the fall of ’04, think about the peril of a leader considering himself "God’s chosen one on Earth," but countless commentators made the same points around that time, and the best of them had more fun with it.

Let the disc play on, though, and Chesnutt may persuade you to give up your urban burg of choice for his trailer park. Chesnutt's characters have their moods (there are two odes to temper, "Got To Me" and "Vesuvius") and get bugged by incidents such as a wife giving away the ham they were saving to a visiting preacher ("The Garden"), but they're comfortable with their stations ("I Shermaned pretty much/my entire adult life/to be with you") and have the patience to devote several minutes to musing about "Rambunctious Cloud[s]." It may take a while to get used to the way Chesnutt never takes less than 15 seconds getting through a line, but his lazy disposition fits well with the relaxed swamp rock of his group, and Frisell's flavorings are so subtle that you might never guess he was a jazz musician.

The clocks in Chesnutt's alternate world seem to have stopped a few decades ago, in a time when singer-songwriters could roll out discs like this once every year or two without being too concerned about making a big splash. Despite the obstacle of the first two cuts, Ghetto Bells leaves you hoping that Chesnutt doesn’t get yanked out of that world anytime soon.

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