Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
published: 17 /
Redemptive latest album from former Green On Red guitarist Chuck Prophet which proves to be one of the highlights of his extraordinary career
“I hear the record crackle/The needle skips and jumps.”
Chuck Prophet has lived through several revolutions of musical taste, technology and consumption: scary as it may sound to long-term fans, he’s currently working his way through his fourth decade in the industry. But then Prophet would question whether he’s ever really been part of the commercial music machine: “I’ve always been on the fringe,” he shrugs. Nevertheless, a distinctive and impressive back catalogue, from his work with Green on Red, via his late 80's debut solo album 'Brother Aldo' to his recent, critically acclaimed works 'Temple Beautiful' and 'Night Surfer', is the reason why he remains a hugely respected figure by those whose antennae are attuned to genuine talent. And that word “works” is used advisedly: Prophet has proven himself an artist in the true sense, single-mindedly chasing down his muse, regardless of the shifting sands of charts and playlists. For too many years than it may be comfortable to count now, he has been turning out one modern classic after another. I’m here to tell you that his most recent release 'Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins' is extending that winning streak. It’s as good as anything he’s ever cut.
Prophet has always been grounded in many diverse musical traditions – back in 1999 he collaborated with Jacquire King to create the varied electronic textures of the album 'The Hurting Business', and many early demos for the new album were cut just on keyboard and guitar with his friend Matt Winegar. But although traces survive here and there (ever wondered what Chuck Prophet might sound like channelling Gary Numan? Try the instrumental coda to ‘Jesus was a Social Drinker’), 'Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins' is unmistakably a rock’n’roll album, brimming with riffs and hooks.
Prophet occasionally pays tribute to specific roots and influences – on the rueful ‘Bad Year for Rock’n’Roll’ he sings, “The thin white duke took a final bow/There’s one more star in the heavens now.” But it is in the music that it is most deeply felt. Bobby Fuller was famous for his reverb – the story goes he built a brick chamber in his parents’ back garden – and there are echoes (pun intended) of that texture in a number of songs, notably the two chord hybrid of surf rock with the band Suicide, ‘In the Mausoleum’ (subtitled ‘For Alan Vega’). But it’s there too in the more subtle details: the beautiful rumination on the life of the touring musician, ‘We Got up and Played’, conjures the atmospherics of an empty, paint-peeling-off-the-brick-walls club. On ‘Coming out in Code’, the raw guitar’s tremolo crashes against singer-keyboardist Stephanie Finch’s breathy, 60's doo-wop vocals. The poignant ‘Open Up Your Heart’ begins with a lonely acoustic and gentle harmonics before opening up to a full band sound complemented by subtle strings and spectral vocal harmonies. The imaginative power of Prophet’s work is not just in the songs and the performances, but in the album’s arrangements too.
Co-producers Brad Jones, Paul Q. Kolderie and Matt Winegar deserve much credit for all this, creating soundscapes of great depth and space across the album which allows for instrumentation that is at times complex but never once sounds crammed or precious (listen to the layers in ‘Postwar Cinematic Dead Man Blues’ – a full tilt rock song inspired by the movie 'The Third Man'). All the more impressive when you realise the album was cut direct to tape without a DAW in sight. Assuming the mastering is done right, audiophiles would be well advised to seek out the vinyl release and save the CD for the car.
Lyrically, the majority of the songs find Prophet working with long-time collaborator Kurt Lipschutz, although there is an interesting evolution here: the co-writes are for the most part terse and economical – check out the final track where the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of the SFPD is the target for a howl of rage; Prophet’s punk roots have rarely been so exposed. His own songs are mostly longer and often seasoned with his unique twisted humour: ‘Jesus was a Social Drinker’ is already a candidate for song title of the year, and the easy-going vocal makes it feel like a conversation between Chuck and the listener. Centuries ago, ‘If I Was Connie Britton’ would have been admired by poet John Donne and satirist Jonathan Swift, if they had been fans of the TV show 'Nashville'. But then they would have been equally impressed by the inspired Prophet-klipschutz conceit in this stuttering ode to miscommunication: “I’m speaking to you from the heart/But it’s coming out in code.”
Next time you try and describe Chuck Prophet’s style (yet again) to someone who’s never heard it, stop for a moment and consider why it’s so difficult to describe (there you go, see?): critics will always go searching for reference points but for the longest time now, Prophet has sounded like no-one really except himself. It’s partly the voice, an instrument that is never anything but spot on – and I don’t mean in sterile TV show competition fashion, but where it really matters: in his phrasing and his rhythm (Prophet has always had a thing for singer-guitarists like Hendrix and on this LP more than ever you can tell why). It’s there of course in the unique style and versatility of his guitar work, which is so ubiquitous it is in danger of being taken for granted. And it’s in the rich, organic band sound, too. For the first time, most of the tracks have been cut with Prophet’s long-term touring outfit The Mission Express, and the album is the better for it, creating room for Prophet’s immensely talented guitar foil James DePrato, the stark beauty of Stephanie Finch’s voice and keyboards, with the rhythm locked down by drummer Vicente Rodriguez and Kevin T. White, whose big-hearted playing I can never hear without picturing that beaming smile he wears on stage. True believers, every one.
So stream it, MP3 it, spin the CD, or let that needle skip and jump. Whether or not you will be left believing Bobby Fuller died for your sins, this is music to transport those lucky enough to hear it to a better place. And at a time when it’s too easy to feel in desperate need of some kind of salvation, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
Open Up Your Heart
Coming Out In Code
Bad Year For Rock And Roll
Jesus Was A Social Drinker
In The Mausoleum (For Alan Veg)
Rider Or The Train
If I Was Connie Britton
Post-War Crinematic Dead Man Blues
We Got Up And Played