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The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

This review was first published on CLUAS in 2002
Other albums reviewed in 2002

Vic Chesnutt

A review of his album 'Left to his own devices'

Although not widely recognised as such, Vic Chesnutt is one of our generation's great songwriters. He is a true maverick, a man with a vibrant musical imagination, an incredible lyrical wit and a voice of immeasurable expression. He is to some music fans what Bob Dylan is to most, and much like JJ Cale in the '70s, has been an inspiration to many artists who have become more famous than himself.

Vic Chestnutt's album 'Left to his own devices' His latest offering, as the title suggests, was recorded at home using basic equipment. The result is that, despite the current ubiquity of such ventures, the album is an often difficult listen. Many multi-tracked vocals and sonic effects are employed and these don't always work.

On "We Should Be So Brave" the keyboard patterns are ill-timed and overbearing, while on "Twelve Johnnies" the effects are quite pedestrian and lend the song little substance. The record's lowest ebb, "Distortion", is nothing more than a long, tuneless rant with surprisingly little to say. In fact, the entire album falls short of Chesnutt's usual remarkable insight into the trials and joys of the human condition.

Despite such inherent flaws, most of this album is actually quite wonderful. The D.I.Y. production makes "Cash" and "In Amongst The Millions" sound like lost folk treasures, dusted off to reveal terrific rustic shuffles. The beautiful "Squeak" could be the ghost of Guthrie on tape. No producer in the world could have engineered the ethereal country majesty of "Fish", a track which would have been perfect for the Lambchop-aided classic "The Salesman And Bernadette". "Deadline" sounds like the Beach Boys doing folk, "Caper" is a light-hearted fake brass romp, while "Wounded Prince" is a sardonic joy, with a killer melody on top of a brisk acoustic rush.

On the darker side, "Hermitage", with its slow heavy piano and sullen thoughts of self-mutilation and solitude, recalls the mood of Vic's saddest song "Florida". "My Last Act" centres on a multi-voiced mantra over an unsettling piano motif and is reminiscent of the lo-fi naked intensity of Smog and Damien Jurado.

Ultimately, "Left to his Own Devices" is a fine record with a unrefined charm you can cherish although it's not comparable to previous masterpieces (such as "West of Rome" or "Is the Actor Happy?"). For those not familiar with Chesnutt's work, it is not an album to be recommended as an introduction to his talents. Those with patience and an open ear for unadorned folk, however, may just find it as rewarding as any album to be heard this year.

Ollie O'Leary