Chuck Prophet is one of the most exhilarating, purposeful lead guitarists in rock. He’s also a vastly underrated songwriter. Since his days in paisley underground legends Green on Red back in the 80s, he’s done everything from psychedelia to Americana to art-rock to what could be called a thinking person’s version of Tom Petty. He’s got a characteristically brilliant new album, Night Surfer – streaming at Spotify – which might be his darkest ever, and a show at the Bell House coming up this Friday, Nov 21 at around 8:30 PM. Cover is $15.
The theme that connects some if not all of the tracks here is future shock, and as Prophet makes clear, he’s not exactly comfortable with it. The opening tune, Countrified Inner-City Technological Man looks back to snide 80s Americana acts like the Del-Lords, with its soul clap beat and relentless cynicism. Wish Me Luck sways along with a warped, Bowie-esque glamrock vibe: “Look out you losers, here I come!” Prophet grins – it’s easy to imagine Edward Rogers or Ward White doing something like this.
Guilty As a Saint takes that sound back five years or so to Abbey Road (or twenty-five years forward to Spottiswoode), a rich, ornate arrangement with deliciously watery guitars from Prophet and James DePrato over the terse rhythm section of Brad Jones (who also produced) on bass, Prairie Prince on drums and lush strings by Chris Charmichael and Austin Hoke. They Don’t Know About Me and You takes that same ambience and lyrical surrealism down a few notches over Rusty Miller’s sweeping organ – until the big chorus kicks in.
Lonely Desolation opens in a blaze of guitar and insistent strings and then hits a rather droll new wave chamber pop pulse – it’s just thisfar from that cheesy Cure hit to avoid cute overkill. Likewise, Laughing on the Inside beefs up its new wave core to anthemic proportions, as Spacehog might have done it but with better, more organic production values. “When they turned on the hose, it felt like a drop in the ocean,” Prophet winks conspiratorially.
If I Was a Baby alludes to Dylan’s Isis, with a cool blend of rustic Americana and art-rock grandeur. Ford Econoline has a guitar-fueled drive that’s part Dream Syndicate, part the Church from around the same time. Prophet follows Felony Glamour, a sardonically amusing, Stonesy tale about a drama queen with Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold), a lush blend of Byrds jangle and paisley underground menace. Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa and Remy) reaches for epic Dylan narrative but ends up closer to Amanda Palmer snark. The album winds up on an aptly surreal note with Love Is the Only Thing, part Orbison noir, growling Hound Dog Taylor blues and stadium rock. “Bring your x-ray vision from the bedroom to the kitchen,” Prophet demands. It’s here that he finally bares his fangs – ironically, over some of the album’s prettiest music. Not a single substandard cut here – one of 2014′s best from a guy who’s been elite for a long time.