Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect, as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. We’re taking a look at all six of the Vic Chesnutt reissues recently released on New West Records, one at a time. For the fourth instalment in the special, we’re assessing his superb 1995 effort ‘Is The Actor Happy?
When Vic Chesnutt released ‘Is The Actor Happy?’, he was four albums and six years into his career – no great timespan relatively speaking but enough that he’d already established himself as one of the most talented cult songwriters of the ’90s, with admirers in high places (Madonna, Garbage and – more importantly – Sparklehorse would go onto cover his songs on a 1996 tribute album). Although already highly regarded by an admittedly niche audience, rather than rest on his laurels Chesnutt continued to explore new avenues, his 1995 effort being as different to what came before as any of his previous albums.
Perhaps his most rustic set, there’s an easygoing charm to the endearingly rough-hewn Americana of ‘Doubting Woman’ and ‘Gravity Of The Situation’. Decidedly airier and more pastoral than the at times challenging ‘Drunk’, ‘Is The Actor Happy?’ stands as one of Chesnutt’s strongest – and most unremittingly beautiful – albums. The majority of Chesnutt’s albums come with a sting in their tail – a taint of pain that gives an agitated gossamer quality to his songs – and while some of the album’s darker moments (most notably the desolate grandeur of ‘Free Of Hope’) do have considerable impact behind them, by and large ‘Is The Actor Happy?’ feels like a relatively contented album for Chesnutt, his ever-present sharp sense of humour shining through more overtly here than on many of his albums.
This is an excellent pressing that not only has high quality playback but the sonics to match it. Spread over two LPs as opposed to the original pressing’s single disc, this reissue spreads the core album over the entire first LP and into the first portion of side three, giving both sides of the first disc a little more breathing room than the original. The healthy dose of bonus tracks included here are allotted to the remaining side and a half. Throughout all four sides, surface noise is very low even when listened to on headphones or at volume thus resulting in a soundscape that never takes attention away from the music itself. As with the other releases in this New West Records reissues series, both records are pressed on 180g vinyl and certainly feel like quality products.
The album’s remaster sounds lovely, with both the original album and the 25 minutes or so of often experimental bonus material also greatly benefiting. Chesnutt’s distinctive lead guitar lines have a presence and shimmering warmth to them only magnified on this remaster, individual instruments like the galumphing drums on ‘Free Of Hope’ and the snaking lead guitar on ‘Gravity of The Situation’ likewise benefit from not so much a new lick-of-paint as a simple revamp of what already made them sound great on the original issue.
Packaging is excellent on this reissue and offers a substantial alternative to the aesthetics of the original vinyl issue. As with the New West reissue of ‘Drunk’, ‘Is The Actor Happy?’ opts to use the alternative cover art first found on the 2004 CD reissue rather than the original art, which is relegated to back cover status on this version. Some may quibble at this decision but, as with the art used on ‘Drunk’, we actually think this was the right choice and that the art used here suits the mood and tonality of the music content well. The sleeve itself is imposing – although not gatefold, it is substantially wider than most single sleeves – a necessity given that it has to accommodate two thick slabs of vinyl – and the chunky spine looks fantastic on the shelf with a tasteful shade of green allowing it to really stand out. There’s also an attractive hype sticker with press quotes and brief information on the shrink wrap – a nice addition that looks great to us but can easily be removed along with the seal if unwanted.
‘Is The Actor Happy?’ ranks among the strongest of Chesnutt’s discography. It’s an album in which gorgeous singsong Americana and gnarled, bristling grunge-blues rub shoulders, and it’s a testament to Chesnutt’s creative genius that the album remains cohesive throughout. This New West Records reissue is not only the sole way to hear the album on vinyl without breaking-the-bank for a scarce original pressing, but also a fantastic one. The bonus tracks, though stylistically fragmented to some degree, only enhance the album and offer some real gems in amongst the more playful outtakes from the album’s sessions. This is a great sounding, attractively presented reissue and well worth investigation for fans of Vic Chesnutt’s singular brand of songcraft.