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Temple Beautiful

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Album Review

Theme projects can be dicey propositions. For every successful one that examines a subject in a song cycle, many more fail miserably as performers strain and stretch lyrics to fit the matter at hand. Leave it to San Francisco's Chuck Prophet to turn that generalization upside-down on his twelfth studio release since the 1990 dissolution of Green on Red. This concept set centers on his San Francisco hometown. The 12 tunes on Temple Beautiful, named after an influential and long defunct S.F. punk club, sometimes only obliquely reference the city. In fact, without Prophet's song-by-song explanations in the press notes, it's often impossible to place this rootsy, melodic rock & roll to any particular location. Still, Prophet proudly declares that the album was "made in San Francisco, by San Franciscans about San Francisco." Regardless, this is another in a remarkably consistent series of terrific Prophet discs, filled with tightly wound blues-based rock, driven by his unassuming talk-sung vocals and ever-present, always imaginative Telecaster riffs. The dreamy trip-hop beats that once played a distinctive part in Prophet's sound have been replaced by a tough four-piece augmented by occasional horns, keyboards from producer Brad Jones, violin and cello, and even a guest vocal from San Francisco's Roy Loney, founding member of, and frontman for, the legendary Flamin' Groovies. The rather open-ended theme namechecks everyone from world-renowned S. F. figures such as Willie Mays to the far more obscure Emperor Norton, a British eccentric who moved there and a figure only those from the area would likely recognize. The 1978 Harvey Milk/George Moscone double homicide by Dan White is referenced in "White Night, Big City," but even those lyrics are obtuse with neither of the protagonist's names mentioned, although what sounds like found audio footage from the subsequent White Night Riots is a subtle addition. Some of the material least connected to the S.F. topic is the most successful. The lonely souls that populate "The Museum of Broken Hearts" have only a tangential relationship to AIDs, but the result is one of Prophet's most beautiful, moving, and mournful ballads, helped enormously by a simple, somewhat psychedelic elegiac violin that weaves throughout the chorus. The short '50s pastiche with Stax-styled soul sax and wife Stephanie Finch (oddly M.I.A. on many of these songs), "Little Girl, Little Boy" is a frisky antidote to some of the songwriter's darker, skewed visions. The latter is exemplified by the rocking and murderous "Who Shot John," another seemingly non-S.F. related item. Ultimately, despite his loftier intentions, this works perfectly well as another excellent Chuck Prophet collection that for most listeners only marginally adheres to its stated concept but is no less impressive because of that.

Customer Reviews

it takes years of practice to sound this spontaneous...

“It takes years of practice to sound this spontaneous...”

Not sure if I read that somewhere or if it’s an original, but it perfectly sums up the peak Chuck Prophet has reached at this point in his career. Temple Beautiful is a concept album of sorts – a tribute to Chuck’s adopted home city of San Francisco - but no concept album I have heard wears the mantle more lightly than this one.

Above anything else, it’s a great collection of songs, peerlessly played, from the pounding opener to the beautifully reflective closing song, ‘Emperor Norton in the Last Year of his Life (1880)’. Along the way, we get some great rockers like ‘Castro Halloween’ (Chuck continuing the trend from his last studio album, letting loose on guitar and capturing some of the energy of his live show), the title track, with guest vocal contributions from Roy Loney of the Flamin’ Groovies, which ends up sounding like Aladdin Sane is having his skinny a** kicked around the bandstand, and ‘White Night, Big City’. The latter is a moving tribute to gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, victims of a senseless shooting in 1978. The deadpan vocal, and eerie call and response at the climax, only make the song more devastating. Best of all (for this fan) is ‘Who Shot John’, Chuck and lyricist klipschutz’s hybrid take on Hey Joe/Down by the River, one of Chuck’s coolest vocal tracks ever laid down embedded in spiky, paranoid guitars.

Great tunes, endlessly quotable lyrics and outstanding musicianship (listen out for James DePrato’s slide lines all over the place and Stephanie Finch’s angelic tones on ‘Red Man Speaks’). A confident vote for album of the year, and it’s only March...


Born: 28 June 1963 in Whittier, CA

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Chuck Prophet hit the road straight out of high school in the '80s with the psychedelic roots band Green on Red, and he never looked back. In addition to working as a singer/songwriter, guitarist, bandleader, and collaborator with artists as diverse as Cake, Kim Carnes, Solomon Burke, and Alejandro Escovedo, Prophet's deepening solo catalog of self-produced "sideways" roots rock has steadily become his calling card. Born in the Southern California suburb of Whittier, the San Francisco-based Prophet...
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