Since 1990 Chuck Prophet has graced the world with fourteen studio albums, starting with his first solo album after leaving Green on Red, ‘Brother Aldo.’ This means that for a top ten list, however worthy they all are, four of them couldn’t be included. Prophet has influenced countless musicians and doubtless inspired burning envy, if not downright suicidal ideation, in the overrated more famous peers for whom he has opened. His music is a distillation of so many different unexpected paths and subgenres that it almost defies classification, which is good news to any creator. Taken as a body of work, Prophet’s is an eclectic, potluck BYOB rent party two weeks before payday.
Prophet’s voice exists somewhere along the continuum of Tom Petty’s, Lou Reed’s, and Alex Chilton’s, with his familiar “Come awwwn!” shout when the song is about to jolt into a higher gear. There is a bit of the wide-eyed ingenuousness of Julian Cope, the wit of Harry Nilsson, and the goofiness of Jonathan Richman, coupled with roiling garage band-meets-Stones Telecaster and an eye for odd details. Growing up in Orange County, where the Fender guitar factory operated in Fullerton until 1985, Prophet has said, “I did live in a kind of place where if you shook a tree, five guitar players would fall out.” (Read his excellent blog for more quip-filled musings.) His mishmash of lyrical influences and references, from highbrow to lowbrow, literary and cultural, deserve their own Wiki.
Number 10: ‘The Hurting Business’ (2000)
Maybe not everyone was aware of the fact at the time, but ‘The Hurting Business’ was a concept album inspired by Danish director Lars Von Trier’s then-recent Dogma 95 movement to return creative control back to filmmakers and away from studios. It was co-produced by Tom Waits’ producer, Jacquire King. Prophet cited ? And The Mysterians and Sir Douglas Quintet as influences. Critics assumed that this album would be Prophet’s breakthrough. ‘Lucky,’ Hammond and all, should have been a hit. Then there were experimental bits, incorporating hip hop, DJs, sampling, loops, a Farfisa, and synths, all in a loud crazy quilt.
Number 9: ‘Balinese Dancer’ (1993)
The backwoodsy, Southern feel of ‘Balinese Dancer’ gives Prophet plenty of room to mix in some loose but smoking guitar solos. He had already hit his stride as a solo artist. It’s hard to pick out highlights when almost all of the songs qualify: ‘Balinese Dancer,’ ‘Baton Rouge,’ ‘Heart Breaks Like The Dawn,’ and ‘110 in the Shade,’ which he later rewrote to play live. His wife, band member, and collaborator Stephanie Finch appears on accordion and backing vocals, providing such a delicate counterpoint (‘Star-Crossed Misbegotten Love’) to Prophet that it’s a shame she’s not more prominent.
Number 8: ‘Soap And Water’ (2007)
This album is more R&B and blues-inflected than some of Prophet’s other work, and his shuffling rhythm section (Brad Jones, Jim Bogios, and Todd Roper) is perfect for it. Many of the songs were co-written with Prophet’s collaborator, Bay Area poet Kurt Lipschutz (klipschutz), who once sat in on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry classes at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. Highlights include ‘Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You),’ ‘Let’s Do Something Wrong,’ ‘Would You Love Me?’, and the poetic, soft-spoken, Tom Waits-like ‘A Woman’s Voice Can Drug You’: “A woman’s voice can drug you / And all your circuits gonna hum / You put on that stupid cape and smile / Fly straight into the sun / Yes, a woman’s voice can drug you anyway / So get it while you can / Now, you may not believe me, but she used to call me ‘senator’ / And just like Joan Crawford she let me know who was the man.” ‘Freckle Song’ is a light-hearted, quirky love song that could have been written for Beck.
Number 7: ‘¡Let Freedom Ring!’ (2009)
Prophet worked on ¡Let Freedom Ring!’ shortly after lending his talents out to other artists on their albums, including Alejandro Escovedo’s. It was written in a flurry of creativity during a beastly heatwave in San Francisco and recorded with Jason Cramer in Mexico City over eight days during a major earthquake and swine flu outbreak in Mexico. The political climate in the US had become optimistic, at least for a while, with the election of Obama the year before, despite an economic crisis that found millions of people suddenly struggling. What better time to write about the nebulous American Dream? He described it as “political songs for non-political people,” and his storytelling ability and eye for odd details allow his songs to take unexpected paths. ‘Where The Hell Is Henry?’ is a fun rocker, while ‘Love Won’t Keep Up Apart’ and ‘You And Me Baby (Holding On)’ are exquisite tearjerkers. On the album cover, Prophet looks slightly rumpled and unsure, the way everyone was feeling at the time.
Number 6: ‘Night Surfer’ (2014)
Prophet ripped out the bench seat of the van he toured in for ages (‘Ford Econoline’) and placed it in his San Francisco office, where it became his preferred spot to write. In fact, ‘Night Surfer’ was written on that seat, another dark-humored concept album “about a path forward, about looking around and imagining where we’ll be in 20 years if we just follow that path. And of course, you’ll find a persistent anxiety throughout.” The title comes from memories of himself as a teenager sneaking out to the beach at night with his friends to engage in the dangerous but exhilarating and forbidden activity of surfing at night.
Prophet was joined by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, The Tubes’ Prairie Prince, and Ministry’s Bill Rieflin on drums. Among the best tracks are ‘They Don’t Know About Me & You,’ ‘Tell Me Anything (Turn To Gold),’ the glam rock ‘Love’s The Only Thing,’ and Ezra Furman’s ‘If I Was A Baby.’ ‘Countrified Inner-City Technological Man’ makes me wonder if it may have been inspired by observing the Bay Area culture clash between the young tech workers and dot com billionaires who pushed out so many of the artistic, lefty, colorful characters on the fringe who could no longer afford to live there.
Number 5: ‘Turn The Pigeons Loose: Live In San Francisco 2000’ (2001)
Prophet’s live performances are an expectation-shattering, joyful experience, so a list of essentials must include a live album. He has long had a large following outside North America and tended to tour extensively in Europe and the UK, including famously getting rained on in a spiffy houndstooth jacket during a wonderful set at Glastonbury in ’03. Plus you never know when he will pull out an Inez and Charlie Foxx, Flamin’ Groovies, or Buddy Holly cover. Let’s just say that at American festivals Prophet plays at festivals farther down on the bill than he should.
This live album with his backing band The Mission Express doesn’t include his later guitar sparring partner James DePrato, but it is a good snapshot of a live situation where Prophet indisputably shines, with bonus witty banter between songs, making any sized venue seem intimate.
Number 4: ‘Homemade Blood’ (1997)
‘Homemade Blood’ was recorded after the Steve Berlin-produced ‘Feast Of Hearts,’ and in a way, it is a reaction to that experience. Recorded live with The Bible Dusters, it is a return to a simpler, less jittery, guitar-heavy, no-frills sound. While Prophet is obviously willing to occasionally experiment with different techniques, he clearly casts a suspicious eye on newer recording technology. It is a wonderful, loud, punk-ass, Stones-inspired album, with room for a beautiful ballad like ‘New Year’s Day.’
Number 3: ‘Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins’ (2017)
Songwriter Bobby Fuller, writer of ‘I Fought The Law,’ who mysteriously died at 23, didn’t even make it to 27. There are still ongoing debates as to whether he committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. By contrast, Prophet’s own career by 2017 had hit an amazing stride and continued to go from strength to strength. To make such a brilliant album at this stage of his career, just when the country around him was falling apart, is an impressive feat. Jesus pops up again on the fun “Jesus Was A Social Drinker” and “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” is catchy, anthemic radio-friendly classic rock built for audiences to shout along to. The loss of artists like Tom Petty, Prince, and David Bowie really did music lovers especially hard, and Prophet is no exception. “We Got Up And Played” was written on a rainy night in Cleveland, and you can hear years’ worth of weariness from more or less constant touring, with brutally honest but wryly amusing snippets about life on the road.
Number 2: ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (2020)
During what sounds like a challenging, tumultuous recording process, ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ was recorded in upstate New York near the Vermont border at Kenny Siegel’s Old Soul Studios after Prophet was priced out of studio time closer to home. It was ultimately a fruitful experience in a new creative space where musicians came and went, including an ‘honorary’ Bad Seed. Without being condescending about flyover country, Prophet focuses on the common lives of non-coastal, non-elite folks. He described ‘Marathon’ about the old dance marathons that were popular in the 1950’s, likened to reality TV, as – “all Krautrock bass and Everly Brothers acoustics. I threw all my rockabilly, space-age, Roxy Music tricks in there.”
On ‘Nixonland’ Prophet looks back at his birthplace, Whittier, California in southeastern Los Angeles County, a scenic suburban small city of the sort newcomers are attracted to the quaint look of but are then bewildered to learn that their new neighbors play lots of golf and vote Republican. Whittier was an early home of Richard Nixon, necessitating a permanent display about the disgraced president at the local museum and multiple spots in town associated with him, where Prophet was dragged to on school field trips.
Number 1: ‘Temple Beautiful’ (2007)
As a personal mythology, alternate history, and psychogeography of San Francisco, ‘Temple Beautiful’ is Prophet’s hook-filled masterpiece. Like Dave Alvin, another southern California native, Prophet has a gift for describing the unglamorous, darker side of life there, which he has described as ‘California Noir’. Among the natural beauty, progressive No Enemies To The Left ethos, bohemian tradition, and hippie spirituality seekers there is poverty, shocking inequality, and violence. That ugliness is nevertheless conveyed with painfully beautiful imagery. He and klipschutz know their local history: infamous strip club owners, famous strippers, poets, the seedy boho underworld, a synagogue that hosted punk shows in ’70s and ’80, and baseball legend Willie Mays. There is a guest appearance by Flamin’ Groovies’ Roy Loney.
Great choices – any of the Top 3 could have taken the top spot.
I’d also probably make room for Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, and the superb Cry Tomorrow (released under the band name Stephanie Finch And The Company Men). It’s pure Chuck Prophet – just Stephanie gets all the lead vocals. Damn it’s good.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article on a most under valued yet essential artist. I will be actively seeking out copies of the albums listed here I don’t already have as a result of reading this!
Brilliant choice but possibly docked a point for not mentioning You Did (Who put the bop etc…). Touring and playing a couple of festivals in the UK in June and absolutely unmissable. There aren’t many like Chuck around to these days.
Good list. Well done. However, leaving out No Other Love is a pretty blaring omission. After the Rain, Run Primo Run, Summertime Thing, I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See … all some of his best songs. Should definitely be high on the list.
I would have had No Other Love on there in place of Let Freedom Ring. Just saw Chuck Prophet Trio in Tampa , outstanding as always!