The pairing of Athens stalwarts Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power yields lingering, autumnal melodies and songs that elude expectation. Dark Developments sways with a natural and stylistic drift toward the melancholy side of Chesnutt's allegorical songwriting. But the buoyant pop rhythms and mellow psychedelic textures of each number tussle with nihilism, culminating in a gray and wintry body of songs. "We Are Mean" is the album's Rosetta Stone, laying out the tensions that arise when these vibrant songs are brought to a point by such a dreary narrator. "The Mad Passion of the Stoic" and "Phil the Fiddler" unfold at the lumbering and difficult pace of the greatest Southern authors. As such, Dark Developments is as spectral and haunting as William Faulkner when he was on point, or Flannery O'Connor when just skirting the dark side.
Dark Developments is an album where indeed the sum is greater than its parts, and the album's cover art bestows just as much meaning on the release as the music itself. The cover features a painting, titled Through the Garden, by sometimes Athens resident Terry Rowlett.
Rowlett's images are lush and allegorical scenes that depict both strange and all-too-familiar characters traversing all sorts of scenarios that exist in their own time and place.
Chad Radford: How Did your painting end up on the cover of Dark Developments?
Terry Rowlett: Andrew Rieger wanted to use it for the front cover of it and I eagerly jumped at the chance to be on the cover of one of Vic's album's. I have always liked his music. Andrew had been thinking about the image and the music for a while and everyone agreed. The painting is seven or eight years old.
Did you go to college in Athens?
Yeah, I got a Masters in 1995. I showed up here in '92 and have been around town since then. I've spent some time in New York. I was living in Woodstock until January 1st. Right now I'm living on Orange Twin, on this little farm compound.
Who are the character in the painting?
Metaphorically speaking I think the guy in the red robe is us, you and me at the end of our lives ... People going through life and then all of the sudden you're dead. He's everybody, generic people. I tried to put a real tranquil spin on it. It looks to me like he's in a Purgatory moment, that kind of quasi real world moment, but not really in the real world.
I had actually found a Hieronymus Bosch image that inspired the painting ... ["The Epiphany" which is also often referred to as "The Adoration the Magi." There's a big ensemble of characters and they're all looking at baby Jesus and one of them is that character in the red robe, and I put a friend of mine's face on him. It was this red robed character on this green, grassy background that I thought was unbelievably beautiful. I was inspired by the red robe and the green and I thought about it for a while and I thought of the figure of death.
For death I just spent some time looking at figures of death and skeletons and hats, and he just looked like the right kind of figure for death to be roaming around.
He's wearing spurs...
I think I did it right after I went to Spain. I spent two months in the town where St. James, Santiago is buried. That figure has kind of a Spanish feel to him. Flat hat and cape ... Maybe a little Clint Eastwood from an Italian cowboy movie ... Maybe.
There are roses falling from the sky...
They were lifted from "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli. I painted them into the scene because at the time I was reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac and he was telling a tale about one of these old hobos on a train car who had a little card of St. Theresa. In it was, I think, the St. Theresa prayer, and she has some kind of ecstatic spiritual thing about the grace of Mary coming down like roses from the sky. I was reading it through him hearing the story and I thought 'a ha!' That's exactly what this painting needs, a shower of roses coming down.
The original painting doesn't have the red curtains, but one of your other paintings, called "The Singer" has the same curtain.
The guy in the other painting is John D'Azzo who used to tour around with Neutral Milk Hotel. Andrew wanted that painting for the front cover of the CD and in order to make it square without cutting the image out we put those red drapes around it. And I have always liked the idea of sort of peeping through a theatre stage or a window. I think it looks really nice. It's just a way that people used to handle Vaudeville scenes.
Are you a musician?
No. I'm getting old now. I turned 46 recently. I used to really be into the music scene. There are a lot of these little cliques and groups in Athens. I guess you choose your friends and who fits together. I don't know if my art necessarily clicks well with them. I've worked with some other Elephant 6 people and actually painted a cover for Major Organ. It's Julian Koster's little art project, Major Organ and the Adding Machine. It came out six or seven years ago and they just finished a movie.
I've painted Scott Spillane the large, bearded man from Neutral Milk Hotel. He's kind of a jovial-looking guy and I'm working on my fourth painting of him right now.
One of the most striking parts about the painting for the Vic Chesnutt/Elf Power CD is the fountain soda on the ground that has just been sort of kicked over or tossed to the side. I think of it as a symbol for carelessness.
You can think of it like that, for sure. I often like to throw in bits of Americana that surround me, like the lawn chair that's in the background. That's one of my old girlfriend's lawn chairs and it has shown up in a couple of different paintings. To me those are attributes that make it so that people like you and me can relate to this character in the red robe. Without a doubt we knock them over very carelessly and throw them in the trash can very carelessly. I think in a way it's almost like the sand in the hour glass. When your big gulp gets knocked down, that's when your time is over.
You've got a few of my faves listed here, plus a bunch I've never heard…
This is such a cool idea and the performance is great (I've been twice) but…
Ugliest bunch of girls I've ever seen.
Shuddup ya dumb beatnik
Neko Case has so much to applaud. Hardest-working girl who we're glad to have on…