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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005 01:23 pm

Not your typical narcissist

Somehow Chocolate Genius keeps things from getting maudlin

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Chocolate Genius Black Yankee Rock (Commotion)
Some geniuses are prolific; others take their sweet slowpoke time. Count Marc Anthony Thompson in the latter category. Over a career spanning more than two decades, the iconoclastic singer/songwriter has made exactly five albums: two LPs in 1984 and 1989, which he released under his own name, and three CDs as Chocolate Genius — Black Music, Godmusic, and Black Yankee Rock — in 1998, 2001, and late 2005, respectively. “I need lyric food,” he told me by e-mail three years ago, when I asked about his fallow periods. “You know: heartbreaks, true love, glory, defeat, some gluttony, a lot of sloth. . . . A really good hangover or near-death experience is always good for a few gems.” Although confessional singer/songwriters are about as fashionable as homemade granola these days, Thompson’s autobiographical approach is far removed from the post-folky, ripped-straight-from-the-diary narcissism of his inferiors. At once grittily realistic and poetically opaque, his lyrics feed on such topics as deadbeat dads and drunken half-men, the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, naked crackheads, household rats, the erotic allure of the baby Jesus, and testicular sweat. With help from an all-star cast of supporting musicians, including legendary arranger Van Dyke Parks, multireedist Roy Nathanson, bassist/chanteuse Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Cibo Matto member Yuka Honda, and loyal collaborator Marc Ribot, Thompson began recording Black Yankee Rock the day after the 2004 presidential election. “If that doesn’t make you play and sing like it’s the end of the world,” Thompson recently observed, “I don’t know what would.” Not that any true Chocolate Genius fan would expect anything upbeat; Black Music was a vicious dismantling of racial stereotypes, and Godmusic was a collection of profane hymns, but both were resolutely down-tempo. Despite the long gaps between releases, every Chocolate Genius CD is essentially the same: an exquisite downer, a bilious and tender riff on the human condition. Like the missing link between Marvin Gaye and Tom Waits, Thompson combines elements of soul, avant-jazz, rock, and blues with a bleak but never humorless sensibility, one that both invites and resists literal interpretation. Produced by Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson, Joe Henry, Norah Jones), Black Yankee Rock doesn’t so much tinker with the Chocolate Genius formula as perfect it. Like its two predecessors, it contains a couple of infectious almost-anthems (the dirty, distorted garage-rock opener, “The Beginning of Always,” and the jangly guitar-pop ballad “Forever Everyone”), but the prevailing aesthetic is slow, sad, and conflicted. The slinky quiet-stormisms of “Amazona” serve as ironic commentary on a failed love affair, and the wheezy calliopelike waltz “Rats Under Waterfalls” turns a rodent infestation into a Disneyesque caprice. Bolstered by plangent strings, Thompson’s lithe baritone is predictably affecting on the self-explanatory “Cry,” and the moody, piano-based “Down So Low” and the lovely Moby collaboration “It’s Going Wrong” also fulfill titular expectations.
In less talented hands, the CD might have devolved into one long, self-indulgent sobfest, but Thompson’s acerbic wit and absurdist imagery keep even his most painful disclosures from seeming maudlin. The opening track’s chorus shows Thompson poking fun at himself (“Maybe this time I’ll get better/I’ll try harder/Yeah?/Whatever”), and the crude pathos of “Tomboyrockstar” (“You keep calling room service because you don’t want to be alone. . . . /While the new things that you want lay dripping in your bed”) belies the arrangement’s saucy call-and-response horns and pillow-talk vocals. It’s beautifully appropriate that the CD’s cover features a Confederate flag rendered in Rasta-sanctioned red, green, and gold. True to form, Black Yankee Rock is perverse and paradoxical, a volatile alloy of ingredients that interact in uniquely satisfying, if irreconcilable, ways.
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