Prophet Ear

Ex-Green on Red mainstay Chuck Prophet continues his solo metamorphosis with The Hurting Business

The first thing you notice talking to Chuck Prophet, naturally, is his voice. Not so much the way it sounds -- a raspy, unfettered bark -- but the attitude it projects. His is the tone of a polite cynic -- filled with gallows humor, self-deprecation, and a world-weary indifference. The kind that seems logical given a lifetime of cult success and junkie excess. The L.A.-born Prophet spent nearly a decade with '80s psychedelic cowboys turned roots avatars Green on Red, most of it riding shotgun with partner/singer Dan Stuart. By the time the group ground to a halt some nine years and 10 albums after it had begun, GOR had yielded a rabid underground following (especially in the U.K.), a vaunted critical legacy, and little in terms of tangible success.

Meanwhile, Prophet had become the victim of the clichéd rock 'n' roll existence, plunged into the depths of a herculean heroin habit that left him at death's door.

But by the mid-'90s, life found Prophet clean, married, and in the throes of a fruitful, if overlooked, solo career.

Terminally deadpan, the lanky guitarist brightens when discussing the genesis of his fifth and latest album, The Hurting Business -- a radical and triumphant departure from the journeyman country-rock of his past.

The idea for the record was hatched after Prophet returned home from a lengthy tour in support of 1997's Homemade Blood. In his mind, he had already conceived a loose-knit concept album which would take an aural shift away from the innately folkish charm and Exile-era Stones aphorisms that had marked his previous work.

"I had a sound in my head," recalls Prophet. "And I wanted to take a cinematic approach with it."

Prophet's primary influence in creating The Hurting Business wasn't musical, but rather inspired by Danish director Lars von Trier's "Dogme 95" film movement. Stylistically rooted in naturalism and realism, von Trier's pictures (most notably Breaking the Waves) focus on the vagaries of contemporary life, filmed without effects, using natural lighting and jarring movements provided by hand-held cameras.

"It's at the point where people are taking traditional songwriting or traditional structures and figuring out ways to twist and turn them sideways. That's always the fun part -- kicking the song around and wrestling with it. Seeing how much you can beat it up beyond recognition before it gets worse."

Much of Business is augmented by loops, scratching, and the occasional sample -- the bulk of them provided by prominent Bay Area turntablist DJ Rise. The album's cut-and-paste fusion teems with an overall quality that mimics the laid-back jazz cool and foreboding sonic textures of Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps.

While the move may smack of an aging roots-rocker's bid for postmodern relevancy, Prophet incorporates the subtle electronic touches so deftly, they seem less an intrusion or distraction than just another instrument at his disposal.

But beyond modern accouterments, the foundation of The Hurting Business is rooted in a bedrock of deep soul sounds -- black and white, North and South. Songs that draw on greasy R&B, from Muscle Shoals to Harlem, and a strain of late '60s country/pop that Prophet calls "housewife goth." "Bobbie Gentry, Tom T. Hall, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Webb -- all the great story songs from that era."

Consequently, there is a heavy emphasis on craft. Half the album's 12 songs clock in at three minutes or less, a structure that Prophet regards as vital to the essence of his work.

"Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious. I hear records nowadays and the fades are like a minute. If you go back and listen to James Brown or Charles Wright, Betty Harris, Lee Dorsey, any of the stuff I was soaking in the couple years where I was working toward this record, they're like 2 1/2 minutes long -- that's it. And when they're over, all you want to do is put the needle back to the beginning. That's the kind of record I wanted to make."

Kicking off with the funky Ennio Morricone-influenced opener, "Rise" ("A change, a change is gonna come/ Those very words once left me numb"), Prophet fashions a sometimes dark, often funny narrative of modern life, seething with urban tension, and sprinkled with caustic insights and pop culture references.

The title track is an insistent Farfisa-maraca number that hints at Beck, were Mr. Hansen in the midst of a serious Sir Douglas Quintet jag. A he-did/she-did tale of fraught relationships and bruised romance ("You hurt me, baby, and I hurt you/ Sometimes we fake, sometimes we jab/ Sometimes we bounce right off the mat"), it takes its name from the unlikeliest of sources, a Mike Tyson quote.

"It was during a press conference after he bit off Evander Holyfield's ear. They asked him if he wanted to apologize, if he felt any remorse about what he did. His reaction was just belligerent and insolent: 'You understand, I'm in the hurting business, that's my job,'" says Prophet in sotto voce, imitating Tyson. "He thought he was doing his job in there. I liked that. I don't know how it relates to what boys and girls do to each other, but it ended up in my notebook."

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