Vic Chesnutt, Joe Henry, Mark Lanegan. The names might be familiar, might even represent demigods in your household. Or maybe they’ve floated around your ears for years and slid their way into your small store of the cultural subconscious.
These guys have been around for years, Lanegan making several ass-kicking albums with the Screaming Trees, and all three dishing up solo albums every few years for at least the last decade. Each one has done it again, with Chesnutt’s Left to His Own Devices, Henry’s Scar, and Lanegan’s Field Songs heading this spring’s lineup of albums more likely to grace the collections of music critics than those of auto mechanics.
When left to his own musical devices, Vic Chesnutt is certifiably out there. A first listen to Left to His Own Devices, his ninth album, may evoke Nick Drake, a more ambient Daniel Johnston, or even a more subdued Robin Hitchcock. (And reading between the lines, one may be prone to suggest that Chesnutt, like Hitchcock, must, in the live setting, be a master of the between-song impromptu monologue).
Devices is one moody collection, wrapped in a mustard-colored booklet that features pictures and drawings of some well-dressed old dude displaying an impressive stash of squash. The catchiest song, “Wounded Prince,” takes on an eerie pall in the light of the recent assassination of much of the Nepalese royal family: “Wounded Prince/where’s your daddy?/he’s out watching/the fat lady sing,” chants Chesnutt, leading up to one of the most memorable musical hooks on the whole album: “You’re mother’s being poked/by some bloke in the Bahamas.”
In the next tune, “We Should Be So Brave,” Chesnutt offers a mellow, melodious appeal to our higher selves to soar to new heights while keeping our feet on the ground: “I don’t need to look in the mirror/to know just where I stand in the scheme of things/I don’t need a doctor’s exam/to tell me why I can’t fly.” Of the three albums, Chesnutt’s takes more risks, runs more freely, and is the most inspired. Maybe it’s because he’s had a closer brush with death than his younger, more jaded compadres. Whatever the reason, on Devices Chesnutt sounds fresh as a spring daisy.
Henry’s Scar, by contrast, seems delivered directly from a white winter spent in an state-of-the-art antiseptic digital studio sipping scotch with Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s slick and a little glum, but frankly, it’s a pretty interesting place to be, and Henry offers no indication that the setting doesn’t suit him.
I don’t know when Henry became a crooner, but at least he’s remained a comedian, even if he’s acquired a more acerbic taste. Scar begins with a sparse, slow “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation,” on which he enlists the able help of one Ornette Coleman.
This is not the same Joe Henry who included his buddies from the Jayhawks in putting together Shuffletown and Short Man’s Room, both classics in the Midwestern alternative country movement of the late ’80s and early ’’90s. So maybe it’s harder to pick out the honky-tonk influences, but Henry still has a down home groove. He’s weathered the coldest of seasons, but his spring seems to be starting off a little more sour than he might care for. At least that’s how it feels on “Mean Flower,” when Henry sings, “Notice how I vanish/and your world remains/you show your head above it with spite, nothing more/like you thought just living was somehow it’s own war.” OK, so Henry’s been wounded somehow, and Scar does exhibit a taste of the soulfulness that often accompanies sorrow. As we know, scars are also symbols of healing, so I’d bet that Henry will avoid a Mark Eitzel-esque descent into the rut of several straight albums of tortured self-pity.
Mark Lanegan’s relationship with Missoula is a story of two degrees of separation. Lanegan once replaced Eitzel as singer for Tuatara, a side project of REM’s Peter Buck as well as drummer Barrett Martin, who backed Lanegan in the Screaming Trees. Eitzel was the frontman for the American Music Club, which also included Danny Pearson on banjo and backing vocals. A couple of years later, Pearson teamed up with Tim Bierman in Missoula to form Clodhopper, who once opened up for Pearl Jam...
...And thus, back to Seattle, the site of Lanegan’s heyday with the Trees. One listen to Field Songs, or any album with Lanegan’s voice, and you can feel his gravelly grumbling well up from within you. Like Joe Henry, Lanegan wears his melancholy on his sleeve, blending it with a heaping helping of smooth piano on songs like “Miracle”: “I need someone for my plaything/so lonesome in my playground/you baby, go straight to my head/and make it seem like a miracle/and make it something beautiful,” sings Lanegan, and his sultry sincerity allows him to come off as stoic and sensitive rather than suicidal or overly sappy.
If the careers of Vic Chesnutt, Joe Henry, and Mark Lanegan can’t yet be said to have “taken off,” then there’s a good chance that they never will. And as their careers wind down, you can bet that VH1 has no plans to produce retrospectives on their respective contributions to the canon of popular music. Regardless of the limited accolades and their relative anonymity, Chesnutt, Henry, and Lanegan continue to make music that’s worth hearing—if you can handle listening to a genuine voice that’s been knocked around a little bit.