Before I could even fully ask the question, Chuck Prophet — the Petty-with-an-edge Americana singer/songwriter/guitarist — was laughing. I said the word “Wikipedia,” and he instantly knew I was heading to this paragraph in his entry: “Chuck Prophet parted with New West Records in 2005 after a restaurant tab argument involving an extra order of garlic bread.”
“It’s metaphoric, I suppose,” he says, calling from a cell phone while walking around San Francisco, where he lives. “It’s a lot funnier than what actually happened. There was a restaurant tab that left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. To be fair, it’s a very difficult business and it always was, even before people stopped buying records. Things get petty, what can I say? People get dropped all the time.”
But Prophet isn’t on the phone to talk about being dropped from a record label. He has a new CD out, Let Freedom Ring!, which features his imagistic, sometimes-gripping and sometimes-humorous impressions of hard living in a recession-gripped America. The songs are given a stripped-down Rock-quartet sound, a result of recording in a Mexico City studio with 1950s-era equipment.
Overall, the album plays like a soundtrack for Robert Frank’s outsider-compassionate The Americans photo series, featuring the kind of catchy, Folk-tinged Rock & Roll that Tom Petty inherited from The Stones and The Byrds and handed down to Prophet, who added Punk-era insight.
It’s his second release for North Carolina’s resourceful Yep Roc label, which has become a record company of refuge for all sorts of musicians with hard-won artistic integrity, from Nick Lowe and Robert Forster to Dave Alvin and The Apples in stereo.
Prophet’s first album for the label, 2007’s Soap and Water, was the highest profile in a career that started in the mid-1980s with a California AltRock band called Green on Red. The native Californian has been releasing solo albums since 1990, although he first worked with a British label and had only spotty U.S.
That changed with 1997’s Homemade Blood — a dark and disquieting take on suburbia — on the Cooking Vinyl label. Since then, he’s released five solo studio albums (on three different labels) and all sorts of side projects and collaborations, including playing guitar and co-writing songs with Alejandro Escovedo on Escovedo’s 2008 breakthrough, Real Animal.
With such Americana songs, it seems odd that Prophet would want to go to Mexico City to record.
“I think people initially thought I was after mariachi horns, but it wasn’t that,” he says. “Just as I had a batch of new songs, I heard from a friend who was an engineer and had moved down there. He said, ‘Man, you got to come down here. It’s like the 1960s.’
“Because of MySpace, MP3s and social networking, people are being exposed to music they never heard before,” Prophet explains. “Now, you’ve got people walking around listening to Death Cab for Cutie or Joni Mitchell or whatever, so in that respect it’s a kind of revolution down there and really open.
“So I visited my friend and we found this studio up on a hill that was state of the art for the late 1950s/early 1960s, and they’ve maintained it. I walked into that room and said, ‘This is it.’ So I went back to San Francisco, put my little cast together, and flew down with a tight little four-piece band.”
If Prophet’s album is political, it is opaquely so — more character-driven than polemical. That fits his personality.
“I often get quiet in political discussions,” he says. “If I can get people in my songs to sound real, that’s all I can do. I’ve written songs full of people I wouldn’t necessarily hang out with. That’s about as political as I am.”
But Prophet does have a reputation for being able to turn heads and throw listeners for a loop with his lyrics. His official biography acknowledges as much, heralding “a vivid parade of razor-edged one-liners.” And if you need proof, try this couplet from the sinewy “Hot Talk” on Let Freedom Ring!, which drives and builds ominously like the Stones’ “Shattered” or Greg Kihn’s “Breakup Song”: “She said, ‘Look up in the sky, there’s a billion stars we’ve yet to even name’/I said, ‘Oh yeah, well look over there, that’s an Indian casino built on a secret burial grave.’ ”
Prophet says he authorized the one-liner reference in his bio, but “I can’t say it makes me happy when people say that. I don’t think of myself as a one-liner guy, trading in Dylanesque non sequiturs or puns. I don’t trust it. As I’ve grown as a songwriter I’m less dazzling, although I think I’m getting better.”
And the line about the Indian casino, which appears to be a non sequitur? It came to Prophet after he played a gig at just such a place.
“The guy told me next year they’d have a better crowd because they were building a road straight to the casino — as long as they don’t uncover any more sacred burial grounds,” Prophet recalls. “He said he told his contractor, ‘If you see something, call me first,’ implying, ‘God forbid we lose a year standing around wondering what to do.’ If you find some bones, look the other way, please.’”
As someone else sang first, but Prophet would probably agree with: “Ain’t that America?”
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