Vic Chesnutt: North Star Deserter

Hrsta: Ghosts Will Come and Kiss Our Eyes

Constellation believes North Star Deserter to be the best album Vic Chesnutt has ever made; not being the world's foremost authority on the man and his music, I'll refrain from contesting or supporting that grand claim. I'd be surprised, though, if Chesnutt has ever had as formidable a group of accompanying musicians as the one assembled at Montreal's Hotel2Tango for the album's sessions. Bringing his songs to life are all seven members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band (Efrim Menuck, Sophie Trudeau, et al.), Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, Frankie Sparo's Chad Jones and Nadia Moss, Hangedup's Eric Craven and Genevieve Heistek, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Bruce Cawdron, and others. Needless to say, their support is sympathetic in the extreme.

Chesnutt's got one of those weather-beaten, lived-in voices that sounds like it's done time in every US city and town, and a wry and worldly lyrical perspective to match. In the folk dirge “Rustic City Fathers,” he muses philosophically, “All that profit-taking / Was a beautiful awakening,” and elsewhere ruminatively (“When I stop breathing / And my poor old heart finally gives out / I will spend eternity / Debriefing”) and resignedly (“It was fun when it lasted / Now it's all turned to dust”). The news isn't all bad, however, as Chesnutt makes room for a life-affirming moment or two along the way (“Splendidly, full of life / Wandering the countryside”). Hearing his voice backed by nothing more than acoustic guitar and contrabass (“Warm”) is as transfixing as hearing it wrapped in full-group arrangements (the gothic chant-laden, string-drenched epic “Glossolalia”). The tunes themselves include hushed folk balladry (“Fodder On Her Wings”) and settings that alternate between restrained verses and vicious choruses scorched by the raw screech and blistering howl of an electric guitar battalion (“Everything I Say”).

Clearly the most unusual thing about Ghosts Will Come and Kiss Our Eyes, the sophomore Constellation release by Hrsta (pronounced ‘her-shta'), is founding Godspeed You! Black Emperor guitarist Mike Moya's ethereal quiver: his fragile croak certainly is distinctive, if something of an acquired taste. Make your peace with that, however, and you're in for a real treat because the songs themselves are haunting and even sometimes beautiful, in particular magical instrumental settings like “Tomorrow Winter Comes” where shimmering organ tones and droning masses of ghostly chords single-handedly transport one to a far-off time and place. The group's sound is fleshed out by the band's core second member, Brooke Crouser (Jackie-O Motherfucker, Set Fire To Flames), who contributes organ and guitar to the album's murder ballads, incantations, and gothic lullabies, while bassist Harris Newman and drummer Eric Craven (Hangedup) lend support to a number of songs.

In “Hechicero del Bosque,” perhaps the most possessed and hallucinatory of the album's nine songs, voices emanate from some deep cauldron while simmering electric guitars swell into a hellish cacophony; equally discomfiting is the poisonous cover of the Bee Gees' “Holiday” and “Beau Village” where Moya's haunted voice is paired with tremulous guitar shudder. And though the comparatively ruminative “The Orchard” appears free of turmoil, especially when Moya's voice is joined by a heavenly choir, lyrically, it tells of burning fields. On albums comprised of vocal and instrumental pieces, it's often the latter that come off as weaker, but that's not the case here. Ghosts Will Come and Kiss Our Eyes opens splendidly with a brooding sea dirge, “Entre la mer et l'eau douce,” a spectral overture of pump organ and swooping saw-like tones, merges haunted electric guitar wail with electric piano in “Saturn of Chagrin,” and later blackens the mood with the ear-splitting howl of molten electric guitars in “Kotori.” Forced to categorize it, one might file Hrsta under ‘psychedelic folk' but doing so doesn't do justice to the material's oft-disorienting character.

And by the way, in this jewel-case era, can we take a moment to credit Constellation for the beautiful presentation of these releases? The Chesnutt release is scheduled to include a 20-page colour booklet of lyrics and photos, and the Hrsta release is distinguished by Lea Grahovac's gorgeous photography.

September 2007