Since 2017’s Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, Chuck Prophet has featured on Kim Richey’s 2018 Edgeland, produced and co-written The Rubinoos’ 2019 From Home, co-written “Her Town Now” with Marc Erelli and long-time partner in crime klipschutz, and participated in extensive interviews for What Makes the Monkey Dance, a book by Stevie Simkin on Prophet and Green on Red. This activity strongly suggests Prophet has a predilection for collaboration, especially when thinking of his other work over the years with such leading figures as Alejandro Escovedo, Dan Penn and Kelly Willis.
The Land That Time Forgot, Prophet’s fifteenth album, continues this approach; it has a distinctive sound due to the shared vocal performances with Stephanie Finch, Prophet’s keyboardist/vocalist and not-so-secret weapon (she has also released a fine solo album, Cry Tomorrow, and was a key part of the one-off project, Go Go Market).
The new disc’s distinctive sound has its roots in the couple’s performances in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s at the Albion in San Francisco. Think of an Anglo-American hybrid, a male/female duo that writer/musician Pat Thomas has compared to Richard and Linda Thompson or Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. Prophet and Finch have continued to perform as a duo, notably in 2018 and 2019—and just recently, according to klipschutz, as a trio, along with Mission Express drummer Vicente Rodriguez, who contributes spirited backup vocals. Perhaps the duets helped shape The Land That Time Forgot, which was mostly written with klipschutz (11 out of the 12 tracks – they enlisted Mission Express guitarist James DePrato to co-write “Meet Me at the Roundabout”, and “Paying My Respects to the Train” was a Prophet/Kim Richey composition).
The Land That Time Forgot was scheduled to drop in May 2020. Covid-19 pushed the worldwide release back to August, but that was still during the thick of the pandemic. Nonetheless, some lucky fans received the album as originally planned in May. Prophet’s releases usually receive a substantial boost through barnstorming across the States and Europe. Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, in particular, helped to build a wider audience. This time, though, post-release tours were cancelled, rebooked, then cancelled again. One loss was a scheduled return appearance on the UK’s Andrew Marr BBC TV Sunday morning show. Hopefully, late 2021 will provide The Land That Time Forgot with another shot, so it won’t go down as The Album Lost to a Time of Difficulty.
Whether the album is lost or found, there’s a sense that it’s concerned with history and public events. Two cases in point are “Nixonland”, a dark portrait of Hunter S Thompson’s “swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president”, last century’s “Tricky Dicky” Nixon, and “Get Off the Stage”, a brutal takedown of “one bad hombre”, the pride of Mar-a-Lago, pussy-grabber DJ Trump.
The songs approach the two presidents in remarkably different ways. While both are portrayed as comical characters and the worthy subject of satire, Trump, with his EU wife and “Russian pal”, cuts a ludicrous figure. In “Get Off the Stage” he’s implored to do “something with that hair”. Nixon however is seen almost as an object of pity, portrayed nearing his downfall at the Oval Office window with a tumbler of scotch “in his slippers and his BVDs”. He talks about himself in the third person but is given more dignity, perhaps because the narrator was born “in the heart of Nixonland”.
It’s also the music which sets these two men apart; “Get Off the Stage” is a contemporary protest song, with a light and more acoustic accompaniment, while “Nixonland” is dark and resigned but electric, with gritty, gnarly guitar. Trump comes off as merely a joke, a poor entertainer who is headed for prison. Nixon, by contrast, is immersed in a murky world of exile “high on a cliff overlooking Nixonland”.
The time machine of “Nixonland” also takes us back to the album’s title, The Land That Time Forgot, which in itself may sound familiar: there’s a ‘70s fantasy/adventure film based upon the 1918 novel of the same name by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the title also frames the album, either from a mythical or cynical perspective, with the suggestion that things haven’t changed. The phrase appears in the second track of the album, “High as Johnny Thunders”, a wistful, almost pretty song full of would-have/could-have regrets, thick with cultural references to rock and roll, and literary and historic figures.
This is certainly an album with characters: there’s Willie and Nilli (in a song of the same name), who seem to be going nowhere, drinking all night and sleeping all day. They endear themselves to us as music fans by blasting Metallica from the stereo, much to the annoyance of their neighbours; the chorus has the couple singing along (but to another song). With an artful turn of phrase, Nilli confesses that she once had a body that could “make a grown man bark all night”. Another song, “Fast Kid” (a re-recording of the B Side to “Tell Me Anything” from Night Surfer), is a quick sketch of “a fast kid growing up all wrong/shaking like a leaf in the golden dawn” with appropriate slide guitar and a nostalgic nod to heroin. “Waving Goodbye” is an impressionistic portrait in three short verses of someone planning her big getaway; the storytelling is accentuated through Prophet’s cool vocal drawl.
The album makes space for complexity, often through making music and lyrics conflict. “Meet Me at the Roundabout” is regretfully positive; “Best Shirt On” and “Love Doesn’t Come from the Barrel of a Gun” admit to mood swings and indecision despite the pop background. The repeated denials of “Paying My Respects to the Train” appear less than reliable due to the melancholic backing. Leaving space for the listener’s imagination also means that the songs have universal appeal. In the urban, Springsteen-like “Womankind”, the narrator tells his lover to “meet me down by the powerlines”; the opening lines (“man made that, man made this”) echo “It’s A Man’s World” before progressing to the sensible conclusion that women are in fact the stronger sex.
The notes to the disc suggest that Prophet stepped out of comfort zone of “two guitars, bass, and drums”, wading instead into “deep roots, from the Southern Delta to the discos of Munich”. Whether The Land That Time Forgot is suitable for disco-dancing is yet to be confirmed, but overall it certainly sounds effortless. Zach Djanikian’s sax solo glides on “High as Johnny Thunders” and Finch’s distinctive vocals add some feminine flair to match Prophet’s alpha. “Marathon” is a catchy sing-a-long call and response where Finch shines; her backing vocals are present throughout the album and are particularly effective on “Best Shirt On”, “Willie and Nilli” and “Love Doesn’t Come from the Barrel of a Gun”.
Co-produced by Prophet, Kenny Siegal and Matt Winegar, The Land That Time Forgot is surely another career highlight for Prophet & Co. When the songs are taken around the block and thoroughly thrashed in the dungeons and sticky carpets of live music, it may be a sweet and deserved victory.
Label: Yep Roc
Release Date: 15 MAY 2020