Chuck Prophet is one idiosyncratic roots-rocker. Sure, he produces Kelly Willis and co-writes minor country hits with Nashville pros, but his own records follow the creative whims of someone who appreciates Alan Vega as much as Merle Haggard.
Prophet, a San Francisco singer-songwriter who first drew attention as the Telecaster-wielding guitarist for Green on Red, has a plain, lived-in singing voice and crafts simple tunes. But he knows how to dress them up, much as he knows how to undress the object of his lust “before you catch a cold” in Soap and Water’s opening track, “Freckle Song.” Prophet doesn’t hesitate to follow a stately acoustic performance with a spastic, drum-machine beat and angular new-wave guitar licks.
Randy Newman has said that the protagonists of his songs are generally just dumber versions of himself, but Prophet’s characters are at least as sharp and sarcastic as the man who penned them. The soft, slow “Would You Love Me?” is, in part, a meditation on Elvis Presley’s existential sadness and gets lifted to the heavens by a crescendo of strings and angelic voices. Prophet also exploits the innocence of a kids choir to accent the cynicism at the heart of “Doubter out of Jesus,” and even slips in an obscure, smart-ass joke at Pat Benatar’s expense on “Talkin’ New Kingdom” (“hell is for children/or so I have heard”).
Apart from his storytelling gifts, which shine most brightly on the pensive “Naked Ray” (key line: “You shouldn’t have messed with my sister”), what Prophet does best is lend a sense of funk swing to his country lilt. Soap and Water’s title song moves like Talking Heads’ “Swamp” with the bathroom echo Phil Spector applied to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and the deliberate, churning “A Woman’s Voice” hits a similar groove. He also apes Alex Chilton with an ode to laziness called “Downtime,” talk-singing like Chilton did on “Dalai Lama.”
At one point, Prophet confides that he’d like to “live forever and a day.” He probably believes that, but all the evidence on Soap and Water suggests that this restless man wouldn’t know what to do with himself for half that long.