Out of Nowhere : Tenor of Tomorrow … Williams’ Delight, Chesnutt’s Merriment

Out of Nowhere : Tenor of Tomorrow

Most good pop records have one strong idea; plenty of great records have none. Who can say why an eager intellect and a fertile imagination often lead to a soulless blueprint of wishful thinking, while a couple of drunks breaking a three-stringed banjo over a cactus opens up the celestial firmament?

Beck Hansen spent his last release attempting to catalog and pin all the dying traditions in rhythm and blues as if they were so many of Nabokov’s butterflies, and the results were no less lifeless. David Byrne continues to insist that, having visited some fine hotels in Puerto Rico, he is an honest Salsalero . It is difficult not to sympathize. Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is rightly praised for his encyclopedic knowledge of the last 150 years of popular musical tradition. But he has yet to record a song that can be experienced to completion with pleasure.

Jimi Tenor, an artist who shares many musical concerns with the above polymaths, has spent the last five years releasing some of the least listenable recordings ever, which shows a certain perseverance and, perhaps, genius–one that is fulfilled on his latest album. Not only does the insanely eclectic yet cohesive Out of Nowhere (Warp/Matador) best anything that Messrs. Hansen, Byrne and Merritt have done in the last several years, but it may be the final nail in the coffin of thrift-store revisionism and Postmodern Pop Art.

In divining the golden measure throughout the last 35 years of soul, soundtracks, jazz, avant-classical, “ethnic” musics and simulated electronics, Mr. Tenor (whose real name is Lassi Lehto) burns down the Salvation Army and replaces it with the hospital we need.

Previously not much more than Finland’s hipper, better-dressed answer to Buster Poindexter, the pixieish Mr. Tenor’s earlier albums worked a whimsical soul-lounge vibe that was seriously cloying. Still, he brought color to a barren landscape and soon found himself playing the jester in the machine for Säkhö Records, home to burble-and-bleep glitchworks electronica, and then Sheffield’s Warp Records. But like his Warp labelmate Tom (Squarepusher) Jenkinson, Mr. Tenor possesses an analog heart. And unlike Jim O’Rourke, another music-school refugee threading his way through the fringes of pop, Mr. Tenor has thrown away his PowerBook in favor of a band big enough to wring honest melodrama out of the ephemeral kitsch he loves: the Polish 60-piece Orchestra of the Great Theatre Lodz.

The temptation to fall back upon Celine Dion parodies must have been intense, but Mr. Tenor manages to wring real emotion out of his recipe for oddball pastiche. Mr. Tenor’s range of musical references goes way beyond what have become the typical Burt Bacharach-John Barry touchpoints.

Mr. Tenor’s writing for strings manages to merge Curtis Mayfield arranger Johnny Pate with Capitol Records producer-turned-psychedelic Jesus-rock missionary David Axelrod. Saxophones press with Coltrane modality, while sitar and Moog drone as Mr. Tenor sings of generic obsession in a Princely soul falsetto.

The results resemble everything from a Hammer horror-film soundtrack (“Out of Nowhere”) to Prince getting off with Talvin Singh on the set of Forbidden Planet (“Hypnotic Drugstore”), to Mr. Mayfield masterminding the Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three score (“Spell”). But these often generic (and, by now, clichéd) musics have obviously been deeply felt by Mr. Tenor, who manages to merge them in ways that don’t appear to be mere decorative overlays. Like the very best of the modern-day lounge-influenced musicians, he has finally managed to get beyond mockery and delve into true belief.

By sifting through the garbage can of the past, Mr. Tenor has come upon something pretty new sounding. Perhaps the secret to using your brain is to hold your nose.

– D. Strauss

Williams’ Delight, Chesnutt’s Merriment

Wrapping her waif-like voice around objects of found delight, riffing off the Beatles and channeling the yelping spirit of Macy Gray, critics’ darling Victoria Williams delicately tries to dip her toes into the pool of mainstream acceptance on Water to Drink (Atlantic). It’s not going to work. Ms. Williams is too full of unabashed wonder and rich with uncontrolled glee to be wedged into any kind of package that’ll be played in Manhattan restaurants as incessantly as Gray’s On How Life Is has been for the past year. Regardless of the pop wrapping paper, Ms. Williams’ freakishly childish voice will always be too much for most of the world to take.

Those who are receptive will find Ms. Williams as full and as rich as ever on Water to Drink . Like Patty Griffin, she is unafraid to sing earnestly about mundane subjects. Indeed, much of this album is about discovering joy in overlooked artifacts. Take “Grandma’s Hat Pin,” or “Junk,” for that matter, with its scronchy electric guitar and swamp-funk keyboard lines and this motto: “One man’s junk is another man’s project / Fixing up junk is a lifelong process / With carefully placed trash is / Someone’s teary handkerchief.” Don’t get it yet? Then listen to her spoken-word introduction to “Lagnapippe” (pronounced “lagniappe”): It’s a Creole-derived word that connotes “a little something extra that someone is not expecting, maybe not even deserving.”

If lines like that seem a little cloying at first blush, Ms. Williams has the ultimate trump card: She’s suffering from multiple sclerosis and knows more than most about taking pleasure from wherever it comes.

Of course, there’s always the question of whether Ms. Williams’ music would be as appealing if the listener weren’t aware of her affliction. On Water to Drink , the answer is yes. Ms. Williams’ Betty Boop shtick can be a bit much at times, such as on the overbearingly cute “Claude,” but a handful of songs here are as good as anything that’s come out this year. “Light the Lamp,” with a single-pedal steel guitar line running through its core and its wink to The White Album ‘s “Cry Baby Cry,” is pure delight.

Where Ms. Williams is all sugary delight, Vic Chesnutt wraps himself in Gothic horror stories and ominous undertones. Like Ms. Williams, Mr. Chesnutt came to public attention in part because of a personal tragedy: The Athens, Ga., singer-songwriter was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. But Mr. Chesnutt, whose concerts are often drunken, rambling affairs, is no blissed-out survivor. On Merriment (Backburner), he growls about idiots, cancer and “shooting oneself in the foot / Catching one’s self with a fishing hook.” And that’s all on the title track.

Mr. Chesnutt continues his habit of collaborating with like-minded Southern oddballs here. On 1998′s The Salesman and Bernadette , Mr. Chesnutt’s best album to date, it was the Nashville 12-piece retro soul outfit Lambchop. On Merriment , it’s Kelly Keneipp–a confidante of Athens, Ga., indie-savant Jack Logan–and his wife, Nikki Keneipp. Save for a couple of guest turns, including punk stalwart Curtiss Pernice on backup vocals and Mr. Logan on bass, it’s just this sparse trio picking away on a spare album: With 10 songs, the whole effort weighs in at under 35 minutes.

Mr. Chesnutt operates like Williams’ darkly obsessed cousin. For every piece of beautiful junk on Water to Drink , Mr. Chesnutt counters with some dark nonsense on his own album. Merriment plays like a roiling, drunken horror story, during which Mr. Chesnutt scraps with his genetic destiny (“DNA”) and delineates a circus replete with herpes-infected clowns, worm-addled dancing bears, a crack-smoking emcee and a human cannonball who’s blown his brains out (“Mighty Monkey”). Where Ms. Williams has soaring trumpet lines and swelling string combos, Mr. Chesnutt uses a drunken-sounding piano dirge, a bowed electric guitar and a funereal clarinet.

Ms. Williams’ album is being released on Atlantic records, and it has the full force of the company’s P.R. machine behind it. The promos are delivered with a hefty packet of press clippings and full-color photocopies. Mr. Chesnutt’s album, released on Messrs. Keneipp and Logan’s pet label, Backburner, comes with a single typed-up bio sheet. Naturally, Ms. Williams will get the ink–she’s already been written up in Spin and profiled in Interview this month–and Mr. Chesnutt will be relegated to a handful of critics’ year-end lists. That’s a shame. Behind The Music life stories aside, both are artists worth savoring.

– Seth Mnookin

Richard Shindell Visits Home

“It’s nice to be here on my former home territory,” Richard Shindell told the 100 fans who had crammed into the intimate Turning Point nightclub in Piermont, N.Y., on July 21. “I feel like I came back and someone else was living in my house.”

Mr. Shindell used to live across the Hudson in Westchester, but he now resides with his wife in her native Buenos Aires. New York is poorer for the move.

I only recently became aware of Mr. Shindell through his role as one-third of Cry Cry Cry, the alternative-folkie supergroup he formed in 1998 with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky to record cover versions of songs written by their underappreciated peers.

One of the album’s buried treasures was Ms. Williams’ version of Mr. Shindell’s own “Ballad of Mary Magdalene,” from 1994′s Blue Divide –an amazing, radical paean to all-forbidden, once-in-a-lifetime love (its chorus: “Jesus loved me, this I know, but why on earth did I ever let him go? / He was always faithful, he was always kind. / But he walked off with this heart of mine”).

In Piermont, Mr. Shindell–who is amiable, handsome and edgy in a Kevin Spacey kind of way–brought Ms. Kaplansky up from the audience to sing “Magdalene” with his four-piece band. He plucked the best songs from his four albums, like the great kiss-off “Are You Happy Now?” from his 1992 debut Sparrow’s Point (Shanachie). (“Hope that what’s-his-name treats you well / I still maintain that he’s a bum. / But it’s your money, have some fun.”) He also covered Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard.

But he rightly leaned most heavily on his latest CD, Somewhere Near Paterson (Signature Sounds). He started with its gritty, catchy “Confession,” sung from the point of view of a tormented stockbroker pleading for a prescription refill, which nails its era in a way few songs have done since “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

“Wisteria,” in which a man revisits a former home awash with memories and regrets, and “You Stay Here,” sung by a post-apocalyptic survivor, are both perfect, haunting gems. And “Transit” elegiacally captures the less romantic aspects of Springsteen’s New Jersey Turnpike.

So where has Shindell, 40, been hiding? For a while, in Union Theological Seminary; more recently, in the folk ghetto, which is something of a disservice. Yes, his songs are acoustic-guitar driven, and more deeply felt and literate than mere “pop music,” but he blends the wistfulness and intricacies of folk with a propulsive backbeat and a hearty, warm voice (eerily reminiscent of a less mumbly Michael Stipe). He deserves at least a VH1 following.

After the show, between signing autographs, Shindell said that Cry Cry Cry had broken up because it threatened to overtake the members’ individual careers. But that seems wrongheaded. It brought at least one more fan into his fold.

–David Handelman

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