CHUCK PROPHET, BLUE SPARK, ELAINE SUMMERS
Tractor Tavern, 789-3599, $8 9 p.m. Sat., June 22
WHEN IT COMES to writing, Jim Thompson had it pegged.
"There are 32 ways to write a story," the noir author famously observed, "but only one plot: Things are not as they seem."
Chuck Prophet understands that verity better than most. For a decade, as a member of alt-country pioneers Green on Red, Prophet earned a reputation as the epitome of wasted junkie cool, a fair-haired Keith Richards whose bacchanalian habits were exceeded only by his white-hot guitar skills.
But ask Prophet about the genesis of his sixth and latest solo record, No Other Love, and you don't get the expected wild-man ravings. Rather, you hear him quoting Flannery O'Connor quoting Anton Chekov.
"It's the he and the she that make literature work," says Prophet in a deep tough-guy timbre. "That's where O'Connor was coming from. So for this album, I thought, 'O.K., a he/she record'—that's as good a place to start as any."
Now five years sober, the lithe, literate singer-songwriter is full of equally pleasant surprises. This newest album marks his third consecutive creative triumph and confirms his metamorphosis from journeyman roots rocker to musical visionary.
No Other Love is more than a simple relationship record, though. It's a stark chronicle of the people cast to the narrow margins of society: hard-luck lifers, misconstrued oddballs, losers, dopers, fixers—all turning on each other in a farrago of deception and betrayal. At its essence, it's about what happens when the shit, inevitably, goes sideways.
As with the characters who inhabit Prophet's world, the more you speak to him, the more you realize things are never as they seem.
THE SEEDS OF Chuck Prophet's breakthrough were sown during the making of 1995's Feast of Hearts, produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. The sessions were long and tortured affairs; Prophet watched as his original vision collapsed under Berlin's endless tinkering and his own growing chemical dependency.
"I have to admit," Prophet deadpans, "I wasn't really in the best shape during that period."
By the end of the year, Prophet's escalating drug habit forced him back to a place to which he'd never expected to return: his parents' house. Prophet holed up in his childhood home, desperately seeking solace, trying to get clean. The surroundings proved a powerful muse as he began to conjure a loose-knit concept album out of the experience, a tale of ennui and disaffection inspired by the films of Mike Leigh, the poems of Raymond Carver, and the images of Bill Owens—whose powerful pictorial collection Suburbia captured the banality and tragic underbelly of '70s America's middle- class fringe.
With these strands working in his head, Prophet fashioned a collection he caustically christened "Songs From the Puke Ravine." Released in 1997, Homemade Blood proved both a strident social commentary and an often-harrowing autobiographical snapshot.
In Europe, Homemade Blood was rightly hailed as a masterpiece, winning lavish praise from critics across the continent. America was a different story; the record never even got a proper stateside release until just last year.
Homemade Blood was a triumph, but it was also a summation of a certain kind of musical vision. Aesthetically, Prophet had his sights set on different territory for a follow-up. For years, he'd been absorbing the sounds of hip-hop, from House of Pain to DJ Shadow, trying to find a way to incorporate the language of electronic music—loops, samples, scratches—into the framework of his traditionally crafted compositions.
Enlisting the help of desktop recording maven Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Orgy), Bay Area turntablist DJ Rise, and his own close-knit crew of collaborators—including wife and longtime musical foil, Stephanie Finch—Prophet emerged in early 2000 with The Hurting Business. The record turned out to be just the kind of wicked postmodern hybrid Prophet had conceptualized, placing Beck and Buddy Holly, Kool Keith and Tony Joe White under the same roof and in a common context.
Released by the U.K.'s Cooking Vinyl label and then subsequently licensed to American roots imprint Hightone, the buzz on the record was, at last, equally loud on both sides of the Atlantic.
Having brought down the curtain on the first phase of his solo career with Blood, Prophet managed to raise it again for Business' successful second act. How, then, to craft his third?
"I STOLE THIS LINE," says Prophet, "but whenever people ask, 'Which comes first when you write, the music or the lyrics?' my answer is always, 'The advance.'"
Enter New West Records president Peter Jesperson, the man who'd discovered the Replacements and co-founded Minneapolis' legendary Twin Tone label. After witnessing a blistering Prophet set at L.A.'s Troubadour last summer, Jesperson inked the guitarist to a three- album deal.
"Something had happened with that [record], and it was inspiring to hear," says Jesperson of The Hurting Business. "While I like all his other albums—especially Homemade Blood—to me it seemed rather apparent that he'd had some kind of artistic breakthrough."
That pattern continues on Prophet's latest, No Other Love—a disc that challenges the senses with a rush of imagistic lyrics and an equally evocative swirl of sound that takes more than a single listen to discern, let alone digest.
From jagged Elmore Leonard-inspired narratives to lush romantic stirrings to boogie-folk deconstructions, the album is a clamorous, joyous kitchen-sink record of the first order.
Wary of losing the incendiary magic of the performance in his own dense soundscapes, Prophet heeded the sage advice of his guru, legendary Memphian musician/ producer Jim Dickinson. "It's like he says, with modern rock there's a huge emphasis on capturing the energy of the band," offers Prophet. "But what you really want to do is take it a step further and capture the spirit of the performance as well. With songs like 'Elouise' and some others, I feel like a certain amount of spirit stuck to the tape."
That spirit, indeed, attaches itself to much of the album: the lacerating blues of "What Can You Tell Me"; the funky, lurching "What Makes the Monkey Dance"; the meaty top-string twang of "That's How Much I Need Your Love."
Mostly, though, Prophet reprises his Business role as cockeyed musicologist. One especially inspired example occurs in the languid, heat-off-the-asphalt evocation "Summertime Thing." The song finds Prophet grafting the signature wah-wah dissolve from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" onto a hip-hop groove that's pure Tupac Shakur. Other familiar figures from rock's expansive lexicon are quoted throughout: The one-note string bit that threads the slow-glowing "Old Friends" is an homage to Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," while the jungle conga that opens "Elouise" has you half expecting Mick Jagger to yelp his way into "Sympathy for the Devil."
Although his current career prospects are on the upswing—"Summertime Thing" has garnered early airplay, and he's set to open dates for Lucinda Williams—Prophet's ultimate ambition is more creative than commercial.
"You ever hear the song 'Tulane'?" he asks, referencing a late-period Chuck Berry hit—the story of a drug-dealing lady on the lam, and clearly a touchstone for Prophet's current work.
"My only goal," he offers grinningly, "is to keep writing until I come up with one that good."