-- Frank-John Hadley

Vic Chesnutt
About to Choke
(Capitol)

If you're looking for the musical equivalent of Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner, look no further than Vic Chesnutt. Through a six-album career (four brilliant releases on the tiny indie label Texas Hotel, a collaboration with Widespread Panic recorded under the name Brute, and this year's tribute recording, Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, which featured unlikely artists such as Madonna and Live) this Georgia-born singer/songwriter's skewed Southern sensibilities and exquisitely viscous music have garnered a small but fervently loyal cult following. And if his latest album About to Choke represents no great leap artistically, well, he didn't need to make one.

Chesnutt's life hasn't always been a bed of roses, and when it was, he was likely pierced by the thorns. When he was eighteen, Chesnutt became paralyzed in an auto accident; he fell asleep at the wheel, drunk. Since then he's struggled with heroin addiction and doubt. And even if you didn't know these facts, one listen to his nylon-string chords and whiskey-tinged voice would clarify it.

Chesnutt writes songs of such unflinching honesty that they're almost painful, and he manages to pull it off without a drop of self-pity or heavy-handedness. On the opening track, he intones, "And I felt like a sick child/Dragged by a donkey/Through the myrtle." His metaphors are laid out like a buffet dinner: Pick and choose your sustenance. The music is deceptively simple, whether he's moving like a horse half-drowned in quicksand or simply rocking out. His vocal delivery is so simple that you can't help but be compelled to listen.

This album doesn't mark any great departure for Chesnutt, but because of his new association with Capitol, it's going to be easier to find than his others. Get it, get it now, then seek out his back catalogue. This is an artist worth hearing. As Chesnutt says so eloquently in "See You Around," the album's closing track: "And I ain't got time for niceties/Or rather I was never fond of the niceties." We didn't want to hear them anyway.

-- Brian E. Rochlin

Ric Menck
The Ballad of Ric Menck
(Summershine/Sub Pop)

Before he signed on as drummer/pretend-naif spokesman for power-pop titans Velvet Crush, lanky Ric Menck fronted and/or recorded with similarly minded late-Eighties outfits the Big Maybe (which also included Velvet Crush bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain), Choo Choo Train, and the Springfields (also with Chastain, plus Til Tuesday's Michael Hausmman and Buddy Judge), all of which issued superb singles on teeny-weeny indie labels. The Ballad of Ric Menck corrals these various 45s in one collection, kicking off with Choo Choo Train's shimmering, psych-poppy "Perfect Day" (a likable knockoff of the Beatles' "Rain") and its hooky, reverberating flip "Bicycle Song." The nine remaining cuts assemble the Springfields' sundry releases, from originals such as the acutely Byrdsian "Sunflower" (circa 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers), the chiming "She Swirls Around Me," and the looking-forward-to-V.C. "Reachin' for the Stars" to fine covers of the Hollies' wonderfully sad "Clown," Primal Scream's relentlessly sprightly "Tomorrow Ends Today," and Matthew Sweet's strummy, melancholy "Are We Gonna Be Alright?" Pop fans of the world, unite and take over! (Summershine, P.O. Box 23392, Seattle, WA 98102)

-- Michael Yockel

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