Review: Vic Chestnutt, Elf Power and The Amorphous Strums – “Dark Developments”

So, where do you want to begin? The way electric guitars scratch and scrape, building toward a verse, before Vic Chesnutt spits out the words “Well, that little fucker, he’s had enough/ The little fucker, he just can’t keep up?” Chesnutt’s voice, airy and almost far-off and distant, reciting a list of evocative, pseudo-obscure vocations as he and company shift the album-closing “Phil the Fiddler” forward with dreamy bass and sometimes-transcendent guitar, like psych-rock gurus aiming to play it a little more straight? The poppy refrains of “We Are Mean” or “Bilocating Dog,” which punctuate their sentiments with mouth trumpet solos, falsetto backing vocals, tambourine and the familiar sound of a guitar steeped in reverb? No matter where you begin – and these aren’t even the record’s finest moments — the verdict’s always the same: this nine-song collaboration among Athens, Ga. fixtures Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power and The Amorphous Strums is an accomplished one, full of great songs and definitely worth tracking down.

Dark Developments begins in anything but darkness. By way of opening, we’re treated to “Mystery,” where Chesnutt offers spare lyrics over an ambling assemblage of sometimes-glassy guitars, poppy bass and humming accordion — it’s a literary, often light-hearted kind of pop/pop-rock that surfaces throughout. It’s also an introduction to the record’s modus operandi: Chesnutt subverts his trademark folksiness and Elf Power some of their sonic weirdness to meet somewhere between as they craft an interesting hybrid of pop structures and psych-rock flourishes. (There’s not enough of a breadcrumb trail to say how The Amorphous Strums fit into the equation here, though the playing by all parties involved is more than admirable. Even the record’s press materials are silent on the Strums’ contribution.)

The record has no shortage of standouts. On “Little Fucker,” Chesnutt seems to rejoice in obscenity like a schoolboy and the resulting joy surges, uninhibited, through the song, especially on bridges where choppy guitars are let loose. The sullen “Stop the Horse,” whose lyrics offer the CD its title, and the bluesy “Mad Passion of the Stoic,” which is equally downtrodden, seem to channel Lou Reed. (Or they may tip the hat to Chesnutt’s own work on records like 2005’s Ghetto Bells.)

The aforementioned “Phil the Fiddler” hits some high marks during its early verses, all swaying guitar and 4/4-intent, but expands over the course of its seven minutes to include a lengthy and enveloping psych-rock jam. The throbbing, dance-ready bassline of “Teddy Bear” – somebody throw bassist Derek Almstead some recognition – flirts with reggae, even while those traditions are supplemented with the spacey notes of an omnichord.

One of the biggest complaints a listener might have is that, at 39 minutes, Dark Developments just doesn’t run long enough. (Or that a CD recorded, in Chesnutt’s attic, during two years should have yielded more outtakes and take-outs.)

“In the city it is grey/ In the country it is green/ In the country, we are happy/ In the city, we are mean,” Chesnutt sings near the beginning of “We Are Mean,” a pop song that could’ve been recorded by Herman’s Hermits if that group had a dark sense of humor and perhaps a little more attitude. (For urbanites taking offense, don’t worry: in the second verse, Chesnutt suggests people in the country are mean, too.) The song’s another example of how great the record is, and how unassuming it can sound in its best moments – a great combination of Chesnutt’s warm, folksy refrains and Elf Power’s more experimental chemistry. In under four minutes, “We Are Mean” shifts effortlessly between bright-eyed pop verses and choruses with grungy guitars and refrains of “We are mean! We are mean! We are mean!” Only nine songs? Mean, indeed. – Delusions of Adequacy, Feb. 4, 2009

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