Vic Chesnutt
Ghetto Bells
New West
2005
B-



good old Vic isn’t an easy Chesnutt to crack. I want to believe the reason I don’t always stay tracked through his hairpin wordplay is because he possesses inaccessible genius, but I’m afraid he’s bluffing. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. On Ghetto Bells’ third song, a multi-tracked Liz Durrett refrains, “what do you mean?” after a series of unresolved metaphorical calls. For example:
Chesnutt: Like a puppy on a trampoline.
Durrett: What do you mean?
Chesnutt: Like a puppy on a trampoline.
Durrett: What do you mean?
Chesnutt: Bewildered.
I’m with Liz (and the puppy) most of the time: what do you mean, Vic? You named one of Ghetto Bells’ tracks, “Forthright,” and you declare on said song: “you can be forthright with me.” Well, being forthright is a two-way street, yet you seem to prefer taking the fourth right on Circuitous Ave. What exactly do you mean to say on Virginia with the lyric: “…my lover my mom / I sprung from her bosom with a saber not a gun?” What is the whole “Christian charity is a doily over my death boner,” thing about? On second thought, don’t tell me. Besides, deep down, I think I enjoy this record best at its most cryptic. In fact, it’s Ghetto Bells’ most forthright moments that make me question its artistry.

“Little Ceasar,“ for instance, is the kind of tune that could leave you pilloried if you were to play it in certain company. The track is an almost Spinal Tap-worthy histrionic battle dirge with a diaphanous allegoric agenda—the tale of a ruler who gains power and becomes a tyrant (you can do the math on one hand).

But don’t get me wrong, beyond, and even with, the polar dynamics of its lyrical content, Ghetto Bells is a very enjoyable record. There is an obvious chemistry between Chesnutt and his crack ensemble. It’s almost as if they all get it—even the “doily” bit.

Liz Durrett, Bill Frisell (aka the Great One), Don Heffington, renaissance man Van Dyke Parks, and Vic Chesnutt all turn out ace performances on a record that is as expansive in Americana style as John Chelew’s production is aurally. Where Chesnutt has long been thought of as the banjo-on-his-knee godfather of freak-folk, this record shows his skewed vision is beginning to radiate far from its nearly-naked, southern gothic roots.


Reviewed by: Mario Quadracci
Reviewed on: 2005-05-25
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