The former Paisley Underground crewman proves his staying power on The Land That Time Forgot
Done right, album titles often spill the beans or in a best case scenario, offer an oblique hint as to what’s inside a record’s heart.
In the case of Chuck Prophet’s latest album, the changeless world he speaks of may be back when rock bands were still a force—the 70’s through 90’s. Or perhaps, to be less musical about it, he’s referring to a time before America was so bitterly polarized politically? Or maybe the fact that as a country we seem to have lost our way, mired in chaos, slipping into regression.
However you see it, here on his 15th solo record—an amazing career by any measure—Charles William Prophet— who can also be heard on seven 80s/90s albums by Tucson/SoCal desert rock/Paisley Underground band Green on Red—again bravely soldiers on as a sensitive rocker at a time when electronics, cross-genre hybrids, even solo singer songwriters—anything but guitar bands—are the en vogue musical flavors. Of all the potent talents that once made up Green on Red (Killer Inside Me being their much debated masterpiece), Prophet has proven to be the one with the most staying power particularly as a lyricist and songwriter. Blessed with a curious mind, a sense of history, and an equal interest in writing about topical subjects as well as love songs, Prophet here continues to fight the good fight for rock and roll, this time out throwing himself, albeit in tuneful ways, into the current political maelstrom.
Artist: Chuck Prophet
Album: The Land That Time Forgot
Label: Yep Roc
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
While the songwriting is exceptional throughout, and Prophet’s Pettyisms remain intact, the album is anchored by a trio of presidential numbers where Prophet who admits in a song-by-song commentary supplied to press that while people don’t come to him for ballot box advice,” he’s also not “a fan of kids in cages.” The political side of The Land that Time Forgot opens with the slow, mournful “Paying My Respect to the Train,” where Prophet talks in impressionistic, translucent terms about Abe Lincoln’s funeral train journeying across the country.
Midway through, Prophet, the Whittier, CA. native who was “born in the heart of Nixonland,” paints what he succinctly sums up in the press notes as a “Basement Tapes power dirge mashed up with a gangster border ballad.” One of the album’s most memorable tracks, Prophet’s unflattering portrait of the 37th president ends with the hilarious/odious image of a crowd chanting, “Jail to the Chief,” while Nixon “stood at the window with his tumbler of scotch/In his slippers and his BVDs.”
But those two milder political fables are a buildup to the album’s most effective political spear, “Get Off The Stage” which after references to a “wife from the EU,” and a plea to “do something with that hair,” calmly suggests that perhaps…well, let’s go the lyrics: “While you, you’ve got an ugly mouth/You got no heart at all/Except for your Russian pal/You’re an obstruction in democracy’s bowel/And the patient is dying.”
Like all recent Prophet projects, this album, well recorded in California and upstate New York, benefits from the work of James DePrato’s outstanding, atmospheric guitarwork, best heard in “Nixonland,” and the considerable talents of Prophet’s wife Stephanie Finch who sings harmony and plays keys on a number of tunes (with echoes of The Reivers) including “Marathon,” where her work on celeste adds a welcome flavor.
Lest anyone think it’s all civics and gloom, the album opens with “Best Shirt On,” the kind of hooky, melodic single that reaches back to Brian Wilson and Buddy Holly for its 60’s-styled snap and sunshine. On the slow side, Prophet has become very effective at talking his way through ballads, along the way accenting syllables and whole words, here employing that skill in the terrific “High as Johnny Thunders,” which celebrates the short, fast existence of the late, great John Genzale with a saxophone in the background, while stringing together a list of “ifs” in pursuit of all the things that never were including Napoleon being tall, the New York Dolls still being a band and “I’d be high/As high as Johnny Thunders/In the land that time forgot.”
Filled with lots to say and the gifts, particularly in songwriting and wordplay, to artfully say it all, Prophet is an outlier, an exception to the reality that at the moment guitar bands are out of fashion if not completely dormant, and perhaps on their way to…?
Timed to coincide with the release of The Land That Time Forgot is the simultaneous release of What Makes The Monkey Dance, a new biography of Prophet by Stevie Simkin which carries the subtitle of “The Life and Music of Chuck Prophet and Green on Red.” As Prophet’s official archivist as well as dedicated fan, Simkin has blurred the lines between straight biography and in-his-own words autobiographical telling, along the way constructing an informative if overly positive narrative of Prophet’s varied career in music from his rebellious youth through his early worship of Bay Area pop band, The Rubinoos and on into his time with Green on Red. Much time is spent on Prophet’s long solo career and the many players in and out of his bands over time.
The best part of a collaboration like this between writer and subject is the quotes. As archivist, Simkin has sourced observations and insights from publications large and small, and too many Prophet sideman and pals to count. The juiciest bits are the quotes, many are stone classics. About sitting in with Green on Red the first time Prophet says, “They just put a guitar in my hands and it ended up being like a five-years-to-life sentence.”
About producer Jim Dickinson, who worked with Green on Red on The Killer Inside Me and Here Come The Snakes, and about whom much has already been written, Prophet says, “It was Dickinson’s approach to capture what’s in between the beats or in between the notes. That random element that most people try to get rid of. I think he was just trying the spirit of what we did.” Dan Stuart, Prophet’s partner in music and social adventures, and a man known for his verbal extravagance, is quoted often throughout, and he gets off his share of telling zingers. It was Stuart who nicknamed Prophet, “Billy The Kid.”
About the sessions for Here Come The Snakes in which Green on Red was down to being just a duo, Stuart says, “Billy played a fucked-up riff, barbed wire stretched too tight. I let out a yelp, my tail caught in the musical meat grinder.” And finally no bio of Prophet would be near complete without a discussion of his life partner Stephanie Finch. Her ex-boyfriend Patrick Winningham is quoted about her relationship with Chuck as being: “They were made for each other. They even looked alike. And they compliment each other musically so well. So that was kind of a weird time for a while…it was almost like Fleetwood Mac.”
Overall, a worthy project and a great read.