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By: Dennis Cook
Chuck Prophet ain't no household name. Despite putting his shoulder into rock & roll since the late '70s with proto-Americana pioneers Green On Red, he remains a San Francisco treat known to a devout following and a coterie of fellow musicians who recognize what a true blue rocker Prophet is. He's released three of the finest albums of the new millennium – 2000's The Hurting Business, 2002's No Other Love and 2004's Age of Miracles - and his latest, Soap and Water [released October 2 on Yep Roc Records], looks to make it four. With Prophet, everything is in its right place. In the past decade he's taken his roots rock beginnings into increasingly experimental terrain, juxtaposing boogie riffs with turntables, acoustic guitars with fuzzbox vocals. Like the man himself, the curves are always subtle and infused with a sense of divine laughter.
| Chuck Prophet|
Prophet holds on tight until material is ripe, only releasing a new slab every couple years. His albums are creepers, where you might not realize just how good they are until you start pulling off individual cuts and see how they shine next to the work of others.
"I know I never let go of them until there's a fair amount of blood on the floor. But that doesn't make 'em better! Music's funny like that. There's a kind of abstract-expressionist-cubist-blues approach where if you don't connect all the dots and use a ruler there's still some mystery left to the record. I think that's the thing that makes people return, where more is revealed each time. I think good pop music sounds great the first listen but oftentimes you burn out on it. There's no mystery to return to," offers Prophet. "I like The Cars and ABBA and stuff like that but albums like Music From Big Pink or Tonight's The Night are the ones that come into your mind and you continually return to."
These are albums that ask the listener to make a leap with them. Every sentence isn't strictly declarative and fresh, personal associations emerge over time. It's music that rises above mere entertainment or distraction into the realm of philosophy and psychology. And in the best instances, we can still dance to it.
"As long as there's something concrete there it's fine. The music I like least is the purposefully obtuse indie rock or soundscapey stuff. That's just me, but I still listen to Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and Some Girls [Rolling Stones]. In general, there's just too much recording going on. Not everything needs to be preserved," says Prophet. "It's happening with filmmaking, too. At the same time, with the advent of video cameras and desktop editing you started to see movies like Hoop Dreams, which wouldn't have existed otherwise and are just beyond words. I guess it's just a whole lot of work for the consumer now [laughs]."
What Makes The Monkey Dance
We're rising and we're falling
Falling and we're rising
Lost on the invisible sea
A thousand stolen kisses
A crime without a witness
Throw me overboard captain would you please
I just can't stand myself
Soap and Water draws palpably upon love and lust, which are given equal gravity in Prophet's work, blasting off with the one-two punch of "Freckle Song," a bright spot of late '70s Stones chug, and "Would You Love Me?," tattered gospel for the faithless. While the tendency is to focus on either love or sex exclusively, Prophet commingles the two in a truly Gnostic fashion.
| Chuck Prophet|
"Mothers need to hold their children. They need to feel that skin-on-skin thing, otherwise you breed some real monsters," muses Prophet. "There's a thing with my songs where they could be about women or about God or mom in an interchangeable way. It's all there if you step back and squint at the songs. 'Would You Love Me?' was one of the last songs that went on the record, and was inspired by Anna Nicole Smith. She was everywhere in the media, and she was tragic. She died of a broken heart. Kinda reminded me a little bit of Elvis. [These type of figures] help us get out of ourselves. We think, 'I'm fucked up but I'm not THAT fucked up.' We need those people. We need to drag them out into the city square and stone them. Everybody will feel better."
Prophet's tone is mocking but there's a sliver of ugly truth to his words. One wonders if we're on our way back to coliseums where the rejected and downtrodden are forced to bloody themselves for the amusement of a desensitized world. "It's already happening," says Prophet. "Bin Laden or whatever, the boogie man is something people just have a need to create. It's a scary part of our human nature. We can't love ourselves enough to love mankind."
One of the chief lures of Prophet's work is a sense that all the fundamentals of strong musicianship - arranging, songwriting, performance and production - are always in place. There's a rib-sticking fullness to everything he does that's grown progressively stronger with each solo release.
"I cast each song like its own movie, and I try to find the characters to make it come alive. I hope there's something about it that can keep me interested," Prophet says. "I get a lot of ideas, start a lot of songs or push things around on my plate, but I don't always have the energy to wrestle it all the way to the ground [laughs]."
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