New West Records

Vinyl Corner : Vic Chesnutt Special Part 6 – ‘Ghetto Bells’

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. We’ve reached the final instalment in our series: his 2005 album ‘Ghetto Bells’

The Music:

By the time most artists have reached the 10 albums mark, the breadth of their own work is such that they begin to fall back on old ideas and recycle concepts from albums released years before; after all, so many bands and artists fail to even release that many records so who, really, can begrudge those that do a little resting on their laurels? Still, if there’s one thing that Vic Chesnutt had proved time and time again throughout his 15 year career prior to the release of 2005’s ‘Ghetto Bells’, it was that he was not a man fond of treading musical water. Indeed, ‘Ghetto Bells’ was every bit the venturing of brave new stylistic frontiers that his previous records had been – the follow-up to 2003’s great ‘Silver Lake’, ‘Ghetto Bells’ has some surface level similarities to its predecessor (both are wildly eclectic and range from quietly mellow to furiously passionate) but the palette here is noticeably different from past efforts.

‘Ghetto Bells’ contains some of Chesnutt’s most densely arranged material as well as some of his airiest; it’s the sort of duality that always comes up in Chesnutt’s work. On few other of his albums does he craft such an immaculately relaxed, unremittingly placid atmosphere as he does on the stunning ‘Forthright’ – an ambience sitting in stark contrast with the weighty, thickly layered arrangements of album opener ‘Virginia’ and the desolate Americana of ‘To Be With You’. As with so much of Chesnutt’s work, ‘Ghetto Bells’ is an album impossible to pigeonhole – as soon as you think you’ve got the measure and tone of the album, it changes again. This, however, is not a frustration but rather one of the key characteristics of what makes ‘Ghetto Bells’ and, indeed, Chesnutt’s body of work as a whole, so intriguing. Trying to pin down any one album as Chesnutt’s strongest is an exercise in futility, but ‘Ghetto Bells’ is one that certainly deserves consideration, if only for the sheer quality of each of it’s songs.

The Pressing:

Remastered for the first time, this pressing excels from a sonic perspective. Already a well recorded album, the remaster accentuates the eccentricities and eclecticism of Chesnutt’s vision for the album. The thick walls of sound of the album’s denser moments lend a real weight on this reissue; ‘Little Ceasar’s grim vignette has the same musical punch here as it does lyrical and the blistering, unpredictable explosions of fuzz guitar scattered throughout the album really do sound gleefully heavy.

The original pressing of ‘Ghetto Bells’ was, rather curiously, released as a double 10″ set. Quite why this decision was made remains a mystery, given that there’s no auditory benefits to be found from the smaller disc size and all that’s gained is somewhat inconvenient storage and overly short sides. Thankfully, New West Records opted to reissue the album as a standard sized double LP; not only is this more visually attractive but it’s more convenient too. Sides are longer here than on the original pressing but – although we don’t have a 1st issue to compare this reissue to – we don’t think the original would sound any better as there’s still plenty of breathing space on the album. The original content is spread over the first three sides, whist side four is given over to three previous unreleased demos. Although not quite the same quality as the main album – they are, after all, demos – the remaster has certainly spruced them up well and they sound great. Although all three cuts are excellent, the standout is a gorgeously stripped-back version of ‘Forthright’. The original version stands out as the best song from ‘Ghetto Bells’, a gloriously understated seven minute exercise in space and atmosphere. Although the demo sheds some of the glorious peripheral instrumentation, the song’s impact is no less overt.

The Packaging:

The packaging on this reissue is really lovely and designed with a clear attention to detail. The records come in nice quality polylined generic inner sleeves – a big plus given how many new releases come packaged in cheap, low quality paper inner sleeves. Also included is a very attractive fold-out insert detailing album credits, as well as giving a candid insight into the album’s recording sessions via a number of images of the band in the studio and, most importantly, lyrics to the complete original album. The latter being an important inclusion given that Chesnutt’s single greatest strength was arguably his one-of-a-kind lyricism. The sleeve itself is well made too, with a nice chunky spine and good print quality throughout.

Final Thoughts:

‘Ghetto Bells’ is a superb entry into the discogrpahy of one of the most ingenious songwriters of the past few decades. Between the excellent presentation, the great sound quality and the fact that the album is now available as a 12″ LP rather than a 10″, it’s safe to say that this 2017 New West Records reissue stands as the definitive way to hear the album.