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Now Hear This

Reviews of four new Vic Chesnutt reissues and releases by local bands Alabama Thunderpussy, Pat McGee Band, Brian Jones Double Quartet and a compilation of Virginia soul music.

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In “Little” (1990), Chesnutt sings with a conversational ease about himself, his friends and fictional and historical characters. The songs are as wordy as R.E.M.’s early ones were slurred, and Chesnutt’s off-kilter delivery emphasizes his quirky vocabulary. There’s a stunt quality about some of these numbers - the lyrics for “Isadora Duncan” are preceded by a note: “Todd McBride told me to write a song with the line, ‘I dreamed I was dancing with Isadora Duncan.’” The liner notes here are by Stipe. ****

“West of Rome” (1992) is fuller, funnier and funkier. It has less of a tortured-artist-in-a-coffee-house vibe, as Chesnutt explores a broader range of expression with confidence. He sings full-out, he drops down to a whisper, he drags lazily, he stumbles forward. There isn’t another songwriter alive who’d think to rhyme “Pakistanis” with “greasy, greasy grannies.” ****1/2

“Drunk” (1992) sounds somewhat like a cross between the previous two records – stripped down but occasionally rocking. Here Chesnutt turns a few classic country-style phrases, including “When I ran off and left her/She wasn’t holding a baby/She was holding a bottle/And a big grudge against me.” The abundant bonuses here include a cover of Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and liner notes by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. ***1/2

“Is the Actor Happy?” (1995) is a rich combination of material, musicians and production. If it sounds like “Out of Time”-era R.E.M., it’s not just the acoustic country-honk of the songs — it was produced by R.E.M., Panic and Indigo Girls collaborator John Keane at his house studio in Athens. Backing vocals and strings fill out the textures without distracting from the spaciousness of Chesnutt’s pacing. It’s an achingly beautiful record, and probably the best introduction to Chesnutt’s burgeoning catalog. ***** — Mark Mobley



Local Bin

Alabama Thunderpussy “Fulton Hill” (Relapse Records)

Rock ‘n’roll can bring together strange bedfellows. In the case of Richmond’s Alabama Thunderpussy, the main sources of inspiration are the excesses of 1970s Southern rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers — dueling guitars, expansive compositions and good-old-boy sentimentality — and the melodic economy and tenacity of early 1980s American punk. Throw in some lessons from the metal of Blue Cheer, Hawkwind and Motorhead, and you have the contradictory yet amazingly successful parade of influences that is ATP.

“Fulton Hill” is the group’s fifth full-length album and the first to feature new singer John Weills, whose voice is perfectly suited to handle the band’s magical mystery tour of influences. He is equally adept at invoking authentic Southern rock soul (the semiacoustic ballad, “Alone Again”) and exploding into a convincing fit of rage (the searing mania of the CD’s best track, “Wage Slave”). The twin guitar attack of ATP founder and former Avail drummer Erik Larson, and relative newcomer Ryan Lake adds power and grace. And drummer Bryan Cox and bassist John Peters root the group’s sonic flights with muscle.

If ATP has a problem it is that the group’s almost too versatile. Nearly every song carries on longer than it should — struggle through the exhausting 14-minute album-closer if you dare — and the excessive riffage borders on narcissism. But despite those flaws, “Fulton Hill” is a studded coat of rock and roll’s many colors. *** — Chris Bopst



Various Artists “Jump Up & Down: Ol’ Virginia Soul Pt. 1” (Arcania International)

A sampler of different performers and styles, this disc shines a spotlight on a largely unexamined period (1962-1969) in our region’s rich history of black music. It’s a diverse and eclectic survey, with melismatic melancholy (Terry Sinclair’s “Clown Suit”), soaring pop (“Since You’ve Been Gone” by the Angelos) and soul sista sermonizing (Ida Sands’ “Prophesize”).

Richmond’s soul scene of yore is well-represented by the slow-grinding vamp of Stacy Henry and the Majestics, an all-star show band that featured hometown hitmakers like Major Harris and members of the Jarmels. The Honey Bees, who recorded for the local Turn-Tage label in 1963, contribute grammatically challenged girl group sounds on “It Happen on a Tuesday.” And fellow Richmonder Bee Gee Stans scores a feisty one for journalists-on-the-make with the propulsive “Front Page Love” from 1964.

The sound may be thin at times (most cuts were mastered from the original vinyl) but “Jump Up & Down” will make old-schoolers do just that. Teasingly, the CD liner notes promise that the next volume in the series will include the classic “Funky Virginia” by Sir Guy as well as additional rarities from Shiptown — Norfolk’s gritty answer to the Motown label. Soulsters, reserve your copies now. ****1/2— Don Harrison



Pat McGee Band “Save Me” (Warner Bros.)

If you’re releasing a semi-comeback album complete with a new look and sound for your band, you may not want to start it off with the chorus: “Help me cause I’m off the radar screen, help me cause you know just were I’ve been.”

Yes, Pat McGee, we know where you’ve been. Before you relocated a few years back to Rhode Island, you were fronting a local acoustic pop band at Friday Cheers and clubs and colleges along the East Coast. Now you’ve surfaced with a second album, four years after your lackluster major label release in 2000.

In interviews, McGee says the decidedly heavier radio rock sound — think Matchbox 20, Goo Goo Dolls — is what he was after all along and that his influence has always been ’80s hard rock. His acoustic pop evolved accidentally because he got his start playing solo acoustic gigs. There’s no doubt some truth to that, but it’s probably also true that Warner Bros. directed this change.

Unfortunately, the result is an entirely forgettable album. McGee has never been a strong songwriter but is usually able to cover up the fragmented and sometimes unintelligible lyrics with a sweet voice and earnest delivery. Now the music has lost its folk-rock forwardness, and the sheen is transparent enough to reveal the hollowness of the words.

But the real problem with this album is that it’s missing the PMB’s strongest assets: keyboardist Jonathan Williams and guitar/banjo/mandolin player Al Walsh. Both former band members had voices that outshone McGee’s and could play circles around him. At live shows, when Williams took a turn in the spotlight, his version of “Rocket Man” could bring a tear to the eye. And Walsh was no slouch either — his voice and playing served as a strong backups for McGee.

McGee said years ago that in order to brand the band, his label wanted him to do all the singing on the albums. McGee either lacked the forethought or the modesty to fight that and push for a less conventional three-vocalist lineup. Now he’s turned into a cookie-cutter pop act, right down to the blond highlights. *— Carrie Nieman



Brian Jones Double Quartet “Fivefinger” (Slang Sanctuary)

The packaging is minimal, and the distribution virtually nonexistent, but there’s more interesting content in one of jazzer Brian Jones’ CDs than in much of the slick product released on major labels.

The Double Quartet is one of four active groups led by the ex-Agents of Good Roots drummer, and the last one to be recorded. The sound is built on a twinned rhythmic foundation: Jones and Brian Caputo on drums and percussion, Curtis Fye and Randal Pharr on bass. Usual suspects J.C. Kuhl and John Winn play reeds, with Bob Miller on trumpet and Sam Savage on trombone.

In less capable hands the lineup could have ended up in a sonic muddle, but Jones’s spacious compositions leave a lot of room for individual expression. The cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” is a pleasant surprise, melodically familiar while very much of a piece with the rest of the session. **** — Peter McElhinney



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