Chet Vincent and the Big Bend
Release date July 22
Review by Melanie Stangl
Five suspenseful guitar notes and a high-pitched, energetic “Yeee-hawww!” lead into a loud swell of church organ and guitar at the beginning of Chet Vincent and the Big Bend’s first new release in two-and-a-half years. It’s an appropriately in-your-face start to an album called “Celebrate,” whose particular blend of raucousness and self-reflection makes for a sound that doesn’t sacrifice fun for thoughtfulness, or vice versa. Combining elements of blues, folk, and classic rock while still not sounding dated, it’s something which (unfortunately) is a bit of a rarity these days: an album that tells a story. We follow the songs’ narrator from his hard-partying hedonistic days, through his questioning and resigned acceptance of these habits, the happy discovery of a woman who brings out the best in him, lingering feelings of being out-of-place and coming to terms with them, and finally, to celebrating the truly valuable things in life and accepting the bad. It’s an album about maturation; it’s authentic, personal, and genuinely enjoyable. Lines such as “I know it’s wrong/this feeling like I don’t belong/It comes on strong,” and “When I try to say what’s on my mind/I lose myself, I fall behind” are accessible and honest. The music adeptly matches the shifting moods, flowing well from hard-rocking party-starters to softer, subtler, more introspective tunes. One lyric from the ninth track, “What You Do For Me,” perfectly sums up the conviction and heart that permeates this record: “Yeah, I know it must be true, it’s how I feel.” Celebrate is rock music executed with skill and soul.
The band is a five-piece, with Chet Vincent on lead vocals, guitar, and harmonica; Andy Voltz on keys and backup vocals; Daniel Dickison on guitar; Madison Stubblefield on bass; and Abe Anderson on drums. Notable guest musicians appear on the record as well: Bastard Bearded Irishmen frontman Danny Rectenwald on mandolin, Eric George on djembe, Ryan Booth on saxophone, and Vincent’s wife/co-collaborator in her own eponymous band, Molly Alphabet, on tambourine.
The first two tracks kick things off with a bang, musically epitomizing the relentless debauchery described in the lyrics. Each song is short but packs a powerful punch. Upbeat church organ sounds and a jazzy, swinging saxophone solo add texture to “The Spins,” nicely pairing with its catchy, recurring refrain of “Yeah, that hit went to my head/Little girl/Yeah, I wish that I was dead/Little girl.” It’s fun that’s already proving overwhelming to the narrator, shown in the song’s abrupt a cappella ending of a distressed-sounding “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” Still, in the next track, he can’t seem to quit: “Chain Smoking” is an energetic, rocking ode to decadence. Proclaiming, “Chain smokin’, I’m jokin’, I don’t want to get clean,” this song is a highlight of the album, with strong guitar riffs and rhythms throughout, an irresistibly head-nodding beat, and piano parts that contribute to an old-school vibe. Even as he advertises the longevity and aggressiveness of these habits (“hard tokin’” included), Vincent seems aware of their adverse effects. This is demonstrated in the higher, desperate voice he adopts in the second verse, as well as the words at the end of the bridge: “I will burn up, uh, uh, I’ll burn out, yeah.” (Fortunately, you can—and probably will—get addicted to this song with no such consequences.)
“One Night Only” mellows out slightly while still keeping the energy up. This reflects the narrator’s shifting attitude toward his indulgences, revealed in such lyrics as: “Man I’ve been hitting it hard/Throwing back beer after beer at the bar/It’s time for a change,” and “Tonight I’m staying in/I won’t say when I’m coming out again/It might be one night only.” The recurring guitar riff, buzzy organ sound that occasionally floats on top, and background “sha-la-la-la”’s of the bridge contribute to the classic rock feel of the track. This bridge is a textbook example of what one should be: different chords are used, different instruments are highlighted (particularly the bass and drums), and the words address downsides to his new approach: “But staying at home’s a drag/Watchin’ TV, no one but me/I don’t to be so lonely.”
“Cut Us Down” mixes things up in a good way: with a slower but still deliberate beat, verses that explore the higher end of Vincent’s vocal range, and lyrics that dip more into the abstract: “Swing the hammer, swing the blade/and look out on the mess we’ve made/Can’t you see our storm is raging?/Hear the thunder, taste the rain.” The words explore the consequences of the recklessness we’ve heard depicted so far, taken to the nth degree, with the chorus stating matter-of-factly, “Madman gonna cut us down, cut us down, he’ll cut us down.” Dickison’s guitar shines here, with a catchy repeated riff, multiple layers of sound, and various levels of distortion. It perfectly complements Voltz’s church-organ keys and a sultry sax solo from Booth: the instrumental break here is a true delight.
We veer into introspection with “Who Am I to Deny It?”, a beautifully bleak blend of swoony piano, subdued, sexy bass, and moody, soulful guitar. Vincent’s voice mirrors the emotions explored, from his lower, somewhat monotone take on resignedly acknowledging his inability to fit in (“I can see/this world wasn’t made for me/for me”), to the higher, warbly tone he adopts in moments of desperation (“Who am I to deny it?/I’m caught like a criminal.”) Once again the instrumental breaks here, after the first and second choruses, are captivating, and honestly ingenious in how they build and how the various sounds complement each other. The melancholy mood is elaborated on in the next track, “My Way (I Just Can’t Change.)” It’s also complicated: despite Vincent’s repeated assertion that he “just can’t change,” he now has more of a reason to WANT to: a woman he cares about has entered his life (“her voice cuttin’ through the madness/she always calls me out by name.”) A slower, piano-heavy tune filled with minor chords, Vincent and his bandmates prove as adept at portraying sorrow as they are at joy. The distorted vocals and drum-roll percussion in the second verse are particularly nice touches. The song’s hanging, unresolved minor chord ending (followed by thirty seconds of cricket noises) reflects self-exploration that ends in defeat: his unwillingness to try to tackle his own faults that he can acknowledge, but not overcome.
“She Gets the Best of Me,” a cheery, folky track, somewhat reminiscent of John Denver’s “You Fill Up My Senses,” reveals a happy turn of events—he and the woman have gotten together. The song’s structure and lyrical rhyme scheme are fairly simple, but executed well, and tie in with the happy simplicity of our narrator’s feelings (“the world rushes by, and it wants my all, but/she gets the best of me.”) Pretty acoustic guitar parts accompany lines such as “People do as they please/my girl, she always sees/Bad times come and they go/My girl, she always knows.” The song is well-placed, a sigh of relief and a smile.
Up next is “Fingertrap,” which recaptures the higher energy shown at the start of the album. From the gritty, twangy, bluesy electric guitar highlighted in the introduction and instrumental breaks, to the high rollicking piano parts sprinkled throughout, and the head-nodding, midtempo beat, this track recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd in all the right ways. The subject matter veers towards the philosophical rather than the personal (“Men doing evil, think they’re doing good/It’s a hard line, to define,”) and the brief chorus calls for consensus while acknowledging the trickiness of achieving it: “Gotta come together, gotta bridge the gap, it’s a fingertrap.” A fun soundtrack to drinking with friends or getting into shenanigans, it’s another highlight of the record.
“What You Do for Me” is contemplative, honest, and sweet, fitting for a chill night around a campfire. The words comment on the ever-changing nature of the outside world while affirming the steadiness of the one he shares with his love: “Everybody rearranges/it doesn’t matter much to me/’Cause what we have is real.” The church organ sound makes a delightful (if subdued) return, and Vincent’s harmonica during the bridge is a perfect fit. Stubblefield’s bass keeps the slower groove going with walk-ups between lyrical phrases, and inventive chord transitions add complexity that never feels out of place.
“The People I Know” expands upon this leisurely, introspective vibe, with melancholy-tinged lyrics and soft, pretty instrumentals. Flute sounds float above and in between gently fingerpicked guitar notes, intertwining nicely with Vincent’s pleasant, mellow voice. General out-of-place-ness in the first verse (“There are people that I know/I’ll never understand”) turns more intimate by the third (“There are people that I love/I hope they need me/There are people that I love/I hope they love me.”) Despite a sense that “this world wasn’t made for” him, this song seems to be the narrator coming to terms with that, as opposed to fighting it—a noticeable growth from his stance at the beginning.
The title song strengthens this sense, asserting: “I have to celebrate/the changes/sometimes they hurt, though/sometimes they hurt so bad.” The keys take on a more warbly electronic tone here, which shines particularly well in the bridge. Certain melodic phrases and guitar chords frequently repeat themselves, revealing both the simplicity of the lessons the narrator is relating (such as “Don’t wanna look back/don’t wanna look ahead too far”) and the need to learn them more than once. You might expect a flashier sound from something called “Celebrate,” and while it is more uptempo than the previous two tracks, the celebration happening is one of gained wisdom (as opposed to, say, chain smoking), and that’s usually not ostentatious.
Closing out the record is the warm, breezy, Hawaiian-esque “Su La Ley.” The music is stripped down to a couple of layers each of guitars and vocals, and percussion that seems to emanate from a cajon rather than a full kit, giving it a homemade, jamming-with-friends vibe. This sound combines interestingly with the lyrics, which address his lover about topics that are a bit worrying and dark: “They say war, it costs a fortune/that is what they say…lover, we can refuse to pay/singing, su la ley,” and “They can hear everything that we say/so say, su-la-ley.” The narrator, having learned to prioritize what’s important and with his love by his side, now seems believably prepared to take on the world’s challenges. This is a lovely-sounding and genuinely satisfying conclusion, summed up in the final line: ““Out on the water/a storm is rolling in/Let’s be together until tomorrow.”
The album, out on July 22nd, is up for pre-order now on Bandcamp, with “Chain Smoking” and “Celebrate” available for immediate download. The band has a show that same day, at 8 PM at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls, and the album can be purchased there too. Whichever format you prefer, Celebrate is a record you’ll want to get your hands on.