As suggested by the broad and eccentrically cinematic sweep of his songs, Vic Chesnutt is a songwriter not afraid to think big, and many of his best records have found the tunesmith working with large-scale musical accompaniment, most notably 1998′s The Salesman and Bernadette (cut with the Nashville chamber-twang ensemble Lambchop) and 2003′s Silver Lake (cut with a full-bodied studio ensemble in the grand 1970s manner). Released in 2005, Ghetto Bells finds Chesnutt working with a much smaller but inarguably stellar combo — master guitarist Bill Frisell, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards and accordion, percussionist Don Heffington, and Dominic Genova and Tina Chesnutt trading off on bass. There’s no denying the skill and intelligence of the players, who lend both strong individual talents and an admirable gift for collaboration to these recordings, but this is also an album that sounds a bit more intimate than it reads. As a lyricist, Chesnutt’s poetic vision keeps getting broader and reaching farther with each album, and despite the talents of the musicians here, on several tracks the music simply lacks the physical strength to handle the lyrical weight of Chesnutt’s material (though this isn’t always the case — the gloriously wheezy string synthesizer Parks plays on “Virginia” gives the tune an appropriately loopy grandeur, and the skeletal rhythmic framework of “Gnats” suits the material perfectly). None of the players on Ghetto Bells makes a wrong move here, with Frisell in particularly stellar form, but producer John Chelew doesn’t give this music a sound as large, ambitious, and full of wonder as Chesnutt reaches for in his songs. Which isn’t to say that Ghetto Bells fails — it has far too many wonderful moments to deserve that appellation, and the glorious interplay between Chesnutt and accompanying vocalist Liz Durrett on “What Do You Mean?” alone justifies its existence. But there’s something about Ghetto Bells that suggests we’re listening to the pan-and-scan version of a disc that was meant to be heard in glorious CinemaScope. And Chesnutt deserves nothing less. – Mark Demingmore »
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