Chuck Prophet’s rollicking sound now is a lot more thoughtful than of yore — without losing any of its rollick.
By Scott McLennan
In some ways, Chuck Prophet is the kind of rough-hewed rock ’n’ roll musician and songwriter that he’s always been, right down to making his latest record in the same San Francisco recording studio he used as a teenager.
But his rollicking sound now is a lot more thoughtful — without losing any of its rollick. Prophet’s latest album, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, boasts clever storytelling, hard-earned wisdom, emotional honesty, and wry humor. In other words, maturity, the sort that comes with time and attention paid to the craft at hand.
“I just can’t do ‘she done me wrong’ songs,” Prophet confessed when reached recently at his home in San Francisco. “It’s nice to be able to go out there and talk about other stuff.”
Prophet, 53, has dubbed this new batch of songs “California noir” because they tap into the synthesis of glamour and despair that loom large in the Golden State mythology. Rocker Bobby Fuller, for starters, landed in Los Angeles from El Paso and hit the big time in 1966 with the firecracker hit “I Fought the Law,” only to be found dead in his car a few months later.
Prophet defines “noir” in sprit of the work of the classic crime-story writer Jim Thompson: “There’s a million stories to tell but only one plot — people and things are never what they seem.”
To that end, Prophet offers searingly dark juxtapositions in his songs. He’s got dance parties happening in mausoleums; a fateful encounter between a woman with a song in her heart and man with a gun in his hand; and a pacifist gunned down by four police officers. And let it sink in for a moment … Prophet tells us in song that “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” and that “Jesus Was a Social Drinker.” Talk about upending traditional roles.
Prophet has long trafficked in the alluringly unconventional, starting with his tenure (for a good run of albums and shows through the 1980s) in Green on Red, a band that fused the psychedelic and the rustic.
In 1990, Prophet launched his solo career with the album Brother Aldo, which proffered harder alt-country influences then were part of the sound of Green on Red. Each subsequent album displayed Prophet’s willingness to stretch out as a writer and song stylist, with “Summertime Thing” off of 2002’s No Other Love catching respectable radio play.
On Temple Beautiful, released in 2012, Prophet reached profound realms with his music. His songs melted the boundaries between genre styles, ushering listeners into fresh, wide open spaces, even though many of the tunes looked back upon the artist’s recollections of the San Francisco of his youth.
His new album took shape, he explained, when he and a songwriting partner were hashing out ideas together and a Bobby Fuller song came on the radio. “I said, ‘Listen to the way that explodes,’” Prophet recalled, and his friend deadpanned, “Bobby Fuller died for your sins.”
Prophet said that he then replied with another line that became a lyric in the song: “I never saw a movie that moved me like that.”
“Then we just kicked the can down the road,” he concluded, going on to talk about how the song expresses his undiluted and longstanding love for the primal excitement that two guitars, a bass, and drums can generate.
Yet when Prophet performs Thursday at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA, he will not be backed by bass, guitars, and drums. Instead, he’ll be backed by two violins, a viola, and a cello.
The distinctive show popped up as the result of a whim. A “conservatory nerd” acquaintance of Prophet’s has been writing string charts for the musician’s songs over the years for an occasional special performance. Prophet figured he could, with ease, find the talent in the Boston area to do a concert of this type.
The unusual setting allows both him and his audience to experience Prophet’s catalog anew. “There’s that thing with a backbeat that makes the music hit you in a certain way. Take away the backbeat and people hear the words more,” Prophet explained.
Ironically, Prophet added that it’s not just the audience who hears the songs differently in the strings setting. “I hear it differently, and it’s something different for me,” he said. “There are so many ways to play a good song.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.