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Hypnotic 'Ghetto Bells'

Vic Chesnutt's Latest Is a Densely Layered Treat

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page C05

Waking up from a late afternoon nap can be disconcerting. Everything feels slightly unsettled. Time itself seems alien. It's not clear whether it's evening or early morning.

Some of that same mind-muddling strangeness takes place when listening to "Ghetto Bells," the ambitious, intensely atmospheric new album from Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt.

Vic Chesnutt's ambitious CD has a mind-muddling strangeness to it. (Ben Mccormick)

Clocking in at just under an hour, the album can be difficult at points. It requires not attentiveness, but maybe the opposite of attentiveness, a willingness to lose oneself in the slow-motion, dreamy swirl of sound and words. There are, for instance, lines like, "Neapolitan ice cream is never really integrated until it's too late." Written on the page, it's almost impossible to imagine how they could work as lyrics. But when Chesnutt sings them on "Vesuvius" they roll out as something more than words, part of a flow of images that coalesce into something magical and mysterious.

Chesnutt, 41, has always been one of the odder folk wanderers, almost an outsider artist whose southern Gothic sensibilities seep deep into his songs and stories, and he channels some kindred spirits on this record. He delivers "Forthright" in a keening voice that brings to mind the late Jeff Buckley. With each note, the deliciously slow song evolves into something on a higher order altogether, a prayer of sorts, or maybe even an answer to a prayer. "Rambunctious Cloud," a seven-minute meditation, could be a vehicle for Roky Erikson, the 13th Floor Elevators singer who has battled mental demons for years. There are echoes of John Hiatt's grit on "Little Caesar," a political jab that seems aimed at the current administration, and of Bob Dylan on the enigmatic and charged opening track, "Virginia."

The album is, in fact, a result of much collaboration. Chesnutt enlisted the aid of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, noted lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and producer John Chelew, who helps envelop the songs in a sort of surrealistic cloak. Liz Durrett's backup vocals add a tantalizing charm, particularly on the mesmerizing "What Do You Mean?," a song that might be the album's most beautiful, as well as its oddest. Drummer Don Heffington, bassist (and Chesnutt's wife) Tina Chesnutt, and double-bassist Dominic Genova round out the cast of musicians on this superbly crafted effort.

One song, "Got to Me," encapsulates the hypnotic effect that listening to this record can have. The music is spare, Chesnutt's croaking voice sparer as he sings, "It was all encompassing, tainted every thought / I guess it really got to me, I guess it really got to me, yes." A mix of ethereal and earthy, all of the songs on this record slowly pull you in, luring you with stories you've never been told, images you've never traced even in your mind. The songs are all-encompassing. They sweep you up. They really get to you.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company