The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, March 10, 2003

Does the term “indie” mean anything anymore? The internet being what it has become, anyone can ply their trade, sell their music via the Web; record company hype is only required for high-profile, short-term profiting signings, and then only to recompense the high expenditure necessary to hype them, in order to please the shareholders. Thus a number of artists have opted to bypass record companies completely – believing that their behaviour and speed is entirely analogous to those of dinosaurs, slow-thinking, slow to catch on – and reach their audience without the necessity of a corporate, or even an independent, middleman.

That’s the theory; though, so far in practice, the artists taking this route tend to be acts whose profile and sales had slowly been declining anyway – Public Enemy, Marillion and Dodgy, and more recently Simply Red and Terence Trent D’Arby. Production standards become systematically more lo-fi, and editing is out of the window; thus something like D’Arby’s recent Wildcard! is a sprawling, incontinent mass of half-realised ideas sorely in need of the disciplined input of an outside producer. Other acts start from scratch and opt to produce their own records, downloadable from their websites or available in CD format by emailing them. The results unfortunately tend to be much the same as those mentioned above.

All the more pleasurable, then, when a new artist takes the direct route and produces what may well be the best pop record of 2003. Cody ChesnuTT will be known to Roots fans for his appearance on the latter’s Phrenology, writing and singing the strange ode to adultery/impregnation “The Seed.” Now he has produced his own record, the immodestly-titled The Headphone Masterpiece. But just because he calls it a masterpiece doesn’t mean that it isn’t. A homemade double CD package, containing 36 tracks and just under 100 minutes of music, the recording quality of much of which is determinedly lo-fi (in many cases, of demo standard), this theoretically ought to serve as an example of where and how not to tread. Yet it works brilliantly. Criticism has been made elsewhere of the supposedly off-putting sonics; yet, like such diverse statements as Brötzmann’s Machine Gun and even the Beatles’ White Album, the comparatively primitive sound design seems to be compatible with ChesnuTT’s intentions. True, all these tracks could be polished up and made radio- and chart-friendly by the Neptunes or Mutt Lange or whoever, but I sense a resistance on ChesnuTT’s part to do this, which is probably why he has thus far turned down all major label contract offers and chosen to make this record available from his own Ready Set Go! label, based in Studio City, California. It’s very much the sense that tarting the music up cosmetically would distance you from the artist, and there’s a need here to be closer to the ground-level aesthetics of black music predecessors like Son House or Marion Brown; direct emotion with no veneer.

It starts with ChesnuTT cocking a snook at New Ageism with his satirical intro of “your body might become a temple” – the ghastly anti-example of Aguilera’s “Beautiful” springs immediately to mind – before he laughs it off and welcomes us to The Headphone Masterpiece. It is extremely significant that the opening song “With Me In Mind” is sung, not by ChesnuTT, but by one Sonja Marie. Over a post-psychedelic glitch-drone which recalls the concluding wreckage of Robert Wyatt’s “Alife,” Sonja Marie smoothly intones her intent to conquer the artist and therefore the listener. This opening track needs to be borne in mind when listening to ChesnuTT’s barbed remarks about the opposite sex which occur throughout the record; the irony is clearly underlined here, and it’s never in question who’s in control.

That statement made, ChesnuTT moves on to the rocker “Upstarts In A Blowout.” The name of Lenny Kravitz certainly comes to mind while listening to the record, but don’t let that put you off; in fact, the record achieves what Kravitz has never managed, principally because, while Kravitz’s work always sounds as though it were assembled to order – rock and soul’s rich tapestry being filtered through an MBA course – ChesnuTT’s work sounds genuinely inquisitive, and thus adventurous in far realer terms. Even the Hendrix homage, with “Third Stone” basso profundo intonations and whirling, post-Joe Meek electronic whistles, doesn’t sound gratuitous.

Generally this is what even half a decade ago could easily have been categorised as mainstream pop with Songs As They Used To Write Them, except of course they didn’t. As with all great pop records, one sits excitedly as track after track demonstrates how good and repeatedly listenable this record is going to be. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times - another double album built up from skeletal demos – but ChesnuTT is by necessity more down to earth; see the very 1968-looking photo on the rear sleeve, with ChesnuTT’s family beaming happily from his front porch, and the man himself standing in the middle of the back row, gleefully waving his guitar in the air.

But he is aware of the contradictions in this extremely non-1968 world; hear “Boylife in America” where he sweetly croons, “All I want is pussy/Give me some religion/A brand new Cadillac/And a winning lotto ticket.” The benign beat of this song soon gives way to the sneering “Bitch I’m Broke” (which he clearly isn’t) before doubling back into the ostensibly solemn ballad “Serve This Royalty” in which he seems to urge you to embrace capitalism in order to subvert it (“I thank Jesus for my mama/Thank you bitches for my money”), a stately organ set against an Ornette-ish horn line which climaxes in a barely suppressed scream. It’s gorgeous, but why is it so?

Next, the distinctly lo-fi original of “The Seed” which seems to glorify brutal adultery, or is it an attack on the “I’m a man” subtext of rock and roll (as he would name the baby)? It’s hard to discern, and really up to the listener to determine. But it’s an astute, brilliantly-assembled pop/rock song. Perhaps it’s a subdued extension of the implications suggested by D’Angelo on the latter’s Voodoo - later on we get 1981 mutant disco bop in “Setting The System” (with a riff closely shadowing the Ohio Players’ “Rollercoaster”) and later still a blissful ode to getting stoned in “Smoke And Love” (“Keep on livin’, keep on lovin’, keep on smokin’”) –a celebration of the forbidden pleasure comparable to that of Harry The Hipster Gibson’s “Who Put The Benzedrine.” The song “Michelle” – and indeed those chorus chords are very Beatley – seems to be an apology for the adultery announced in “The Seed.” Do you accept him back? Did you take him seriously to begin with? “No One Will,” in contrast, reaches the places George Michael no longer can – an absolutely unambiguous hymn of acceptance of the Other. Hear the sexiness of his repeated “we laugh, we laugh” and how that is balanced by the slightly more assertive and confident “we are, we are” in the lovely ballad with a doomed chorus “Can’t Get No Betta.” “Up In The Treehouse” present childhood recollections (“dream, dream, that’s all I do”) taking us back to the ethereal pop of the Association, and in “She’s Still Here” we move to “Strawberry Fields” territory as ChesnuTT cannot believe that he is capable of being loved and that he does not have to die in order to achieve this.

The ominously celebratory electro of “The World Is Coming To My Party” is powered by a Human League distorted synth bassline, echoed by a doom-laden lower register piano as ChesnuTT declares a state of revolution (“Let me liberate your mind…emancipation starts on time”) – again, take this into account when listening to the subsequent satires on rap macho-ness in “War Between The Sexes” wherein ChesnuTT attempts to “freestyle” in accordance with mainstream rap templates, but can’t keep it up (in all senses) and collapses in hysterics. This segues straight into the gorgeously poignant “The Make Up” with its desolately beautiful organ/synth chord progression (“if you give my sex a chance, we might come closer together”), and the simple but heartbreaking declaration of unanticipated, undiluted love in CD 1’s concluding acoustic ballad “Out Of Nowhere” – an exact counterpart to Lennon’s “Julia” which concludes the first part of the White Album.

CD 2 begins with some superficially amiable fooling around on “Family On Blast,” wherein ChesnuTT engages in studio chatter with his cousin and collaborator Donray over another ominous piano-driven breakbeat (“Keep on shining – talk about how you want to change a few things”) before going into “My Women, My Guitars” which slaughters all similar endeavours by Lenny or Terence, and is the sort of song of which Noel Gallagher was once briefly capable of writing (the panorama from “I’ve got a dick full of blood” to “I know my breakdown’s on the way”) – a future classic. “Somebody’s Parent” is an impassioned plea from the protagonist to his family to “forgive me for being the dick that I’ve been to the children with you – all day with no nicotine is the reason I’ve been so mean,” and its match-striking rhythm makes it the song which balances out “Smoke And Love” on CD 1, though noticeably spikier with its wow-and-flutter guitar (“Novocaine For The Soul” in the penitentiary).

“When I Find Time” is the most overtly commercial song on the record, a terrific, rolling, infuriatingly catchy groove subverted by ChesnuTT’s frustration at not being able to love the Other properly because of his lack of time. “Eric Burdon” returns to introspective acoustic White Album territory as ChesnuTT muses what it’s like to be “nothin’ at all without my mojo” – again, here’s an addictive chorus (“pressure! pressure!”) which easily could have come out of 1968 but crucially is not imprisoned in 1968.

ChesnuTT is up for anything. “Juicin’ The Dark” is a Portishead-esque trip hop workout, complete with theremin wailing (and how suddenly and how overwhelmingly have Portishead come back into fashion, eh? I recently refreshed my memory with regard to their eponymously-titled second album from 1997, which now seems like the unintended prequel to 100th Window - war music: “Cowboys,” “Western Eyes,” Beth G sounding as though she’s about to spontaneously combust in “Half Day Closing”). And then we get a beautiful Fender Rhodes-driven ballad “5 On A Joyride” where ChesnuTT’s strained high vocals fit the song’s uncertain nostalgia – worthy of Wilson, worthy even of Rundgren. “So Much Beauty In The Subconscious” has ChesnuTT growling sinisterly and indecipherably underneath a 1979 No Wave organ refrain which randomly speeds up and down to echo his confusion about, again, “those bitches.” Then we have a lullaby “Daddy’s Baby” which starts soothingly enough but soon sails into darker waters with the clenched teeth refrain of “no stress, no worries, you lucky motherfucker;” a vague parallel to the introduction to Eminem’s “Kim,” except that here no one dies. Not yet.

Next we get a couple of comparatively straightforward rockers. “If We Don’t Disagree” celebrates his band (“It ain’t rock, it ain’t roll, if we don’t disagree”) while “Look Good In Leather” – more cheerful bubblegum - is tongue-in-cheek braggadoccio (the lightness of his tenor, as throughout the rest of the album, indicates the mischief at play here). Indeed, though it may be weary to cite D’Arby continually as the antithesis of Cody, there is none of the growling/retching/real man screeching which mars almost all of TTD’s records. ChesnuTT wisely stays in Al Green/Curtis Mayfield vocal territory/register.

The concluding “6 Seconds,” however, sees him musing on finding “ways to stay alive,” and here he seems to be contemplating, not just closing the album, but committing suicide (“I’ve only got 6 seconds to make up my mind”). Happily, he concludes “I’m gonna stay three steps ahead of it/I’m gonna live it up and leaves” before wandering off and letting his guitar play the album out. So there will be more…thankfully. But for now – well, in terms of pop records released in 2003, as the great David Vine used to say on Ski Sunday, this is the one they’ll all have to beat.

(Note to British Churchgoers: the album is not yet available in UK record shops (to paraphrase afternoon Channel 4 adverts); but if you go to
his website, you will be able to order the record and also download tracks)

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