Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut (Constellation) This continues the style shift started on North Star Deserter, Chesnutt's first album on Constellation, recording in Montreal using a similar mix of musicians including Fugazi's Guy Picciotto (who had the most input regarding production and arrangements), Frankie Sparrow's Chad Jones and Nadia Moss, and labelmates Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. Like its predecessor, it has stormier musical outbursts than his previous work usually contained, including the outright anthemic "Chinaberry Tree," but there's still plenty of room for acoustic guitar-centered songs.
As usual regardless of production, it's full of self-deprecation and soul-shattering personal details delivered with off-handed wit. "It Is What It Is" opens, "I am a monster, like Quasimodo / or Caliban, the natural man / giving wild Ripostes to my reflection" and continues, "Like the Invisible Man directing traffic / I'd be Ineffective no matter How enthusiastic," which is simultaneously funny and poignant. The song starts quietly but eventually builds, bit by bit, in density and intensity, its dramatic arc and the climactic fiddling recalling classic Van Morrison ruminations as Chesnutt builds to his grand iconoclastic declaration "i don't Need stone altars / To help me hedge My bet / against the Looming Blackness." And then, since Chesnutt likes to undermine grand pronouncements, he follows it by closing the album with a little ditty about his grandmother and her false teeth, but even that takes a sudden turn to sweet sentimentality at the end.
If the sub-par quality of last year's Chesnutt/Elf Power collaboration had you worried, well, he's back at the top of his game here. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.