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Chuck Prophet, Heavy Trash, Gov’t Mule and Maurice Mattei

By Brian Baker · October 30th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

This posting is considerably later than I would have liked, and if blame is to be assigned then let it be on my hippie kidneys. They just love getting stoned.

I have read that the pain from a kidney stone is comparable to labor for a woman. Being uterus-less, I can't compare and contrast, but having observed labor twice in my life it seems as though the pain of labor reaches a peak, then subsides, then peaks again, then subsides. The point here is that labor pain reaches approximately the same level each time.

With a kidney stone, the pain comes back at a higher level with each cycle and it doesn’t seem that any pain could be worse than the last one, yet the next one is. indescribably worse.

So I personally would amend the comparison to the following: The pain from a kidney stone is comparable to labor for a woman, if she was successively snakebit, pistol shot and bullwhipped with each contraction. I am still waiting for the little bastard to pass, which means cycles of writing quickly while I can sit upright and writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues. Particularly filthy tongues. I think I said something foul in Babylonian last night.

You read, I’ll writhe.

Chuck Prophet has typically been so far ahead of sonic trends that he can barely see them in his rearview mirror. From the visionary Country/Rock architecture of Green on Red to his wide ranging solo career, Prophet has always been creatively restless, reinventing himself like a rootsy David Bowie and applying his own unique stamp to whatever direction he chooses to pursue.

Prophet’s last album, 2007’s Soap and Water, was a further example of his ability to find new inspiration within Stonesian parameters while wearing all of the hats he’s sported since 2000’s roots-and-turntables marvel, The Hurting Business. His latest, Let Freedom Ring!, broadens the focus even wider while honing in on the specifics of each individual song, perhaps equally influenced by his collaboration last year with Alejandro Escovedo on his Real Animal album.

“You and Me Baby (Holding On)” is the sound of Bob Dylan guided by the Velvet Underground rather than Woody Guthrie, while “American Man” is the Stones as SoCal rockers at their swaggering, staggering best, featuring some of Prophet’s most incisively political, Dylanesque lyrics to date (“American Man, up on the mound/With an orange alert and a new wave sound”). Recorded in Mexico City at the height of the swine flu epidemic, and in the midst of an earthquake and brownouts in a studio that hasn’t been upgraded since the Eisenhower administration, Prophet focused that negative energy into this amazing set of songs written in and about the economic, political and emotional maelstrom we find ourselves in at the moment.

Best Chuck Prophet album ever? Sure, why not? They all get to wear that medal for a while.

When Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray, known collectively as Heavy Trash, began working on their third album, Midnight Soul Serenade, a set of love songs was the last thing on their mind.

Starting with the concept of doing short one-minute-or-less rave-ups (based on a series of radio/internet spots they had conceived for their last album, 2007’s Way Out), the love song cycle quickly began to reveal itself within the context of the duo’s manic Garageabilly style.

From the hyper Doo Wop of “Gee, I Really Love You” to the swampy Blues swing of “Good Man” to their Psychobilly Howlin’ Beefheart cover of LaVern Baker’s classic “Bumble Bee” to the blistering Cramps homage of “Bedevilment,” Spencer and Verta-Ray and their rotating cast of studio supporters (drummer Sam Baker, bassist Simon Chardiet, Scandanavian Rockabilly purists PowerSolo and pianist Mickey Finn among them) have created an album that is steeped in Rockabilly/Blues authenticity but never gets so lost in its influences that it forgets its place in contemporary music.

There’s still plenty of the visceral Punk and Garage Rock that populated the first two albums, but there’s also the Nuggets psych Punk of “Good Man,” the acoustic/electric Country Blues of “Pimento” and the frenetic acid Blues of “(Sometimes You Got to Be) Gentle,” where Spencer and Verta-Ray show the White Stripes and the Black Keys the definitive location of the garage and how to rock it. One of Midnight Soul Serenade’s interesting departures is “The Pill,” which plays out like a James Ellroy short story set to a psychedelically-unhinged Rockabilly deep dub soundtrack, with Spencer narrating over the top like Jim Morrison in his poetry phase, further proof of Heavy Trash’s maturation, expansion and creative reflection.

From the start of his career, Warren Haynes has had very little to prove to anyone. Once you’ve successfully filled the void left by Duane Allman, you’ve made a pretty bold statement about yourself. Haynes’ work with the Allman Brothers and on his own has punctuated that statement more than conclusively. But there may have been no more effective declaration of Haynes’ confidence in his abilities than when he chose to diminish his role with the Allmans in order to concentrate his efforts on his fledgling power trio Gov’t Mule in 1997.

Since forming a decade and a half ago, Haynes and Gov’t Mule have scaled new heights, elevating the band to the respected status of his former employers. He’s exhibited his deep love and respect for the bands of his youth by covering their work in his live set (Pink Floyd, The Who, Cream, among many others), built up a slavishly loyal fan base by touring relentlessly and survived the death of longtime friend and bassist Allen Woody in 2000.

Because of the Mule’s pervasive live presence and the abundance of legitimate and bootleg recordings documenting it, the one benchmark that has eluded the band so far is a truly great studio album. With their latest, By a Thread, they might very well have accomplished it. From the Billy Gibbons-guested “Broke Down on the Brazos” to the Page-and-Zep-bent “Steppin’ Lightly” to the Pink Floyd/Led Zep-drenched atmospherics of “Monday Mourning Breakdown,” Haynes is giving notice that he belongs in the same pantheon as the Classic Rock that helped shape his musical perspective.

By a Thread swings and smokes and swaggers with Blues/Rock bravado like the best Rock albums of the ’70s and even sports a similar sense of social and political outrage. As a guitarist, Haynes has absorbed the lessons of Hendrix and Page and Beck and Clapton and Allman, but rather than simply emulating his heroes, he’s taken the important evolutionary step of translating their styles into his own, which will ultimately seal his legacy of being an influence himself.

For 15 years, Warren Haynes has been making great Gov’t Mule albums. With By a Thread, he’s made a great Rock album.

Maurice Mattei is a local treasure, pure and simple. The Bob Dylan comparisons are warranted, not just because Mattei’s voice has the timbre of Mr. Zimmerman, circa “Lay Lady Lay,” but because both are poets of the highest caliber and yet each finds a way to couch the most esoteric thoughts in the most accessible fashion. And it’s not hard to find parallels between Dylan and Mattei in other critical areas as well; acoustic simplicity, melodic complexity, haunted harmonica, finely honed social and cultural conscience.

Although Mattei’s latest album, Straggler, is credited to The Tempers, Mattei’s voice and acoustic guitar and songs and style are the focal point of the album, with the Tempers’ contributions (violin, cello, keys, mandolin, dobro, harp) drifting in beautifully just above radar. The 10 tracks on Straggler are all of the epic Dylan variety; the briefest is the four-and-a-half minute “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad?” and the longest is the album’s laconic closer, the eight minute expanse of “The Ballad of the Heartless Bastards,” a lovely tribute to Ms. Wennerstrom and her accomplishments. A local tale of intrigue and outrage is revisited in Mattei’s version of Dylan’s “Hurricane” as he recounts the tragic events and the predictably twisted aftermath surrounding “Timothy Thomas and Angela Leisure.”

There are moments on Straggler when Mattei seems to be tapping into acoustic Folk/Blues master Jorma Kaukonen with the same quiet fervor as he channels Dylan — “The Other Side of the World,” “Lookin’ All Around Me, Lookin’ Everywhere,” “Cold Waves Break on Solid Ground” — but ultimately all of the musical references get focused into the singularity of Mattei’s creative lens and emerge from the process as reminiscent of other artists and yet unmistakeably the work of Maurice Mattei.


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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