Vic Chesnutt
About to Choke

It takes a while to dig Vic Chesnutt. There are nagging delays, such as the one inevitably caused by the attempt to figure out just who, or what, that warbling voice coming through the speaker sounds like: Cat Stevens? Folk singer Bill Morrissey? Saturday Night Live's Opera Man? All, or none of the above? And if Chesnutt can't help echoing these and other singers, why can't/ won't/doesn't he phrase his lyrics like anyone else I've ever heard?

Then there's the disorientation that results from the stylistic mishmash of Chesnutt's musical accompaniment -- a train wreck of acoustic pluckings, slop rock and Casio (actually, it's a Yamaha Portasound) burps that might make quicker sense if there were even a hint of hip-hop underscoring, which there isn't. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest shred on the abortively brief "(It's No Secret) Satisfaction.")

And then there's the melodic trick Chesnutt plays on standout tunes such as "New Town," "Degenerate" and "Threads" -- indelible once they've latched onto gray matter -- that suggests the use of some sort of audio recognition time-delay system (coming soon from a media conglomerate near you).

Chesnutt's lyrics are no less confounding, even if they do suggest vaguely autobiographical musings. But I couldn't care less if the man's being straight with me, as long as he leaves me something to chew on. One minute he's "in the hot seat, sweating it out," another he's "a rough ball of twine"; later, he's promising to be "the parliamentarian with an unswerving dedication," and before it's all over he's "sorry for my lack of communication." You might have to know Chesnutt personally to gauge precisely where he's at here, and maybe that helps position him loosely in the New Sincerity school of post-genre songwriters. But you don't need to live on Chesnutt's block to register the impressions he leaves.

The further you delve into idiosyncrasy, the harder it is to pass meaningful judgment. But when straight explication fails to turn the trick, you've got to fall back on gut reaction: Does it ring true or doesn't it? Chesnutt rings true, sounding like a minor visionary emerging slowly -- after a string of cultish indie efforts -- out of the basement. Three or four spins on, I'm left with a CD that I can hardly get out of the player long enough to make a living. (**** 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

Makaveli (a.k.a. Tupac Shakur)
The Don Killuminati/The 7-Day Theory
Death Row/Interscope

It's always a little spooky listening to someone's posthumous musical statement, especially when the deceased artist was murdered in a flurry of gunfire just a few months earlier. But Death Row -- wizards of timing that they are -- have made the experience even creepier by issuing this CD of unreleased material by the late rap superstar Tupac Shakur under the mysterious alias Makaveli, with the cryptic paradigm of a title The Don Killuminati/The 7 Day Theory.

"Listen very carefully" was the pitch line for Death Row's ad campaign for The Don Killuminati, giving the indication that the disc could reveal clues about Shakur's unsolved murder. Good luck finding any.

"Listen very carefully," though, and you will hear the cries of an angry yet misguided artist. From the get-go, Shakur is antsy and irritable in the worst ways, spewing threats at rival rappers NAS, Mobb Deep and his well-publicized nemesis, the Notorious B.I.G. "I'm a Bad Boy killa," he boasts on "Bomb First (My Second Reply)," pouring salt on the wounds of his feud with Bad Boy Entertainment. But that's nothing compared to his most volatile round of rhythmic malice, which comes in "Toss It Up." Shakur goes so far as to badmouth former Death Row inmate Dr. Dre. "Check your sexuality / It's fruity as this Alize," he snaps.

The more tolerable raps on The Don Killuminati come when Shakur bottles his venom and aims above the belt, as on the vigorous, street-savvy tracks "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Krazy" and "Me and My Girlfriend." Here, Shakur kicked his playa-bashing agenda to the curb and, for a fleeting instance and the last time, sounded like his own charismatic self again. (** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Friends of Dean Martinez
The Shadow of Your Smile
Sub Pop

If it wasn't already, it's now official: The lounge revival's gone bad. You knew the trend had to have turned a little green by the time it got to Tucson, from whence this hapless quintet lets 13 mostly original instrumental tracks die on the vine in the name of ... I don't know ... amateur night at the local Holiday Inn.

It was supposed to be in the name of Dean Martin, whose un-Hispanicized moniker originally graced the band's name. But Martin's people, perhaps having heard a demo, threatened to sic Sinatra's legal department on the project, so Sub Pop and the band backed off, changed their name to the Southwesternly tangy tag you see on the CD cover, and blasphemed away.

Well, okay, anyone who's listened to Dean Martin's Greatest Hits all the way through can't seriously speak of blasphemy, but you can hear the sound of bandwagon rumbling all over this disc, cutesy "Secret Agent Man" medley-riffs and all. I'm a fan of the cocktail genre in the hands of an Esquivel -- or even a Combustible Edison -- but this is a lazy in-joke that plods along as if the musicians knew the gag was stale before the tape started rolling. You could try, I suppose, to salvage this as mood music. Problem is, the mood it puts you (or me, anyway) in is a bad one. (* 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.


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