"How can I swallow every little thing she says?/She don't even know Elvis from El Vez." Every once in a while, a single line from a song can leap out of its boundaries. This one's perfect. It defines the problem with the woman in question: She's indiscriminate, unable to differentiate between honest emotion and artificial pop-culture satire. Or is it that she can't tell the difference between the unknowing joke Elvis became and the constantly winking references of El Vez? And because El Vez is still only a modest blip on the contemporary landscape, the line also brings the listener into the act: If you don't know who he is, none of this makes any sense, and you might feel lost in this song.
The song is "Apology," the third track on the fine new album by Chuck Prophet, once the guitar player in Green on Red, an '80s indie band that probably didn't even get the market saturation El Vez has. The Hurting Business is Prophet's fifth solo album, though the first four have been virtually unavailable outside of England, where he enjoys a decent critical reputation.
With or without the El Vez reference, "Apology" sounds like a hit single, in the perfect imaginary world where hit singles can come from any source. It's a slow, jangly number with a languid melody that sounds instantly familiar yet always naggingly different from what you've heard before. It's got a great hook that Prophet sings with all the world-weariness of one who has spent a heck of a lot of time apologizing without ever seeing any benefit from it. It takes a simple idea, the human need for forgiveness, and pushes it hard with a series of extreme examples. The funniest ones include lists of apology desires such as "CBS from the MTV," or "the shoulder from the road."
Actually several songs on The Hurting Business could be singles. The title track sounds like a cool follow-up to Beck's "Loser." It's built on an insistent little Farfisa hook and a clever analogy between couples who fight and professional thugs. Then there's "God's Arms," which starts off sounding like an outtake from Prince's Around the World in a Day, then gets even catchier. The lyrics on that one find the hurt, rejected lover putting himself in the other's body and being revolted at what he sees. "La Paloma" could have been by Tom Waits, if Waits had ever used electronic drums to drive one of his chugging songs.
Prophet comes from a folk-rock, singer/songwriter background, but you can't tell it. The production favors clipped drum sounds that reference hip-hop or electronica, even when they are usually played on real drums. Prophet plays some incredible guitar licks, but he never rips out a traditional solo; instead, he layers his instrument into a mix of keyboards (from mellotron to Hammond organ), throbbing bass, percussion, occasional lap steel and even extremely inventive turntable parts. Yep, Prophet is as influenced by hip-hop as by any traditional pop song form; he just calls on that as one more color in his palette.
The Hurting Business is the type of record that keeps calling you back, keeps making you want to hear more. There is always more to discover, always another angle to catch, and any fan of intelligent, well-crafted pop should take it to heart.