CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS
Sunset Tavern, 784-4880, $10
9 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 19Fri., Sept. 20
Viewed at a distance, most musical marriages tend to reveal a mile-long ribbon of clich鳠—conflict, heartbreak, infidelity, and usually, divorce. Granted, there have been high-profile combinations that have succeeded spectacularly over the years, from Johnny Cash and June Carter to Buddy and Julie Miller. But take a quick look at the other side of the ledger—George and Tammy, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina—and you can see why such unions are anything but a sure bet.
"It was hell of a long shot," says guitarist Chuck Prophet of his own 13-year professional and personal run with fellow musician Stephanie Finch. "But it's the long shots that pay off the best."
For Prophet and Finch, the handsome dividend is the just-released Hotel San Jose, the long awaited debut from the couple's joint project, Go-Go Market.
Recorded in fits and starts over the past 18 months—with assistance from Tom Waits' collaborators Mark Reitman and Jacquire King—Hotel San Jose assays a variety of styles before revealing itself as deep soul—an album pickled in Southern Comfort, cured in Kool 100s, and oozing with a late-night quality that's undeniably affecting.
But as Prophet and Finch both attest, the record and the relationship have been long and perilous in the making, fraught with a fair share of tears and trouble.
A Los Angeles native, Stephanie Finch was a fledgling musician—having logged time in a celebrity folk combo with actress Mare Winningham—when she migrated to Northern California in the late '80s.
At the time, Chuck Prophet's seminal roots outfit Green on Red was in its final death throes, and the guitarist was still—as they say—deep in his cup. He and Finch decided to team up.
"When we first started out, it was just the two of us. I was playing acoustic guitar in a real challenged way, which I naively thought was really great," laughs Finch, "but Chuck had to get drunk every night just to get through the set. Then as we could afford them, we slowly started adding band members."
Finch became the charter member of Prophet's backing outfit, the Mission Express, playing and touring with the guitarist from his 1990 solo debut, Brother Aldo, up through this year's much acclaimed No Other Love. As their creative collaboration blossomed, so too did their romance. By decade's end, Finch's encouragement had helped Prophet get sober, ushering in his most successful period; they wed five years ago.
Although she'd long been writing songs and scheming ideas for her own projects, it wasn't until downtime between tours in the late '90s that Finch began to assemble the material that would compose Hotel San Jose.
Working on songs with Prophet and his frequent lyrical collaborator, klipshuctz—the nom de plume of Bay Area poet and wordsmith Kurt Lipschutz—the trio began fashioning a collection of classically crafted character studies—little vignettes detailing fragile affairs, messy liaisons, and sour, impacted emotions.
"We fell into this Brill Buildinginspired thing, with songs that were a little more character driven," recalls Prophet. "And so we thought about what it might've sounded like if Carole King and Gerry Goffin had written songs for Dusty Springfield. That's kind of when [Stephanie] felt she'd found something she could really get inside."
Along with a group of like-minded players, Finch and Prophet formed a loose collective to perform the songs live, quickly dubbing the outfit the Go-Go Market. "It sorta turned into a weird Booker T and the MG's type of thing," Finch recalls of the band's early forays as openers for Jonathan Richman, Joe Henry, and others. "It was like a frat party all the time."
It would be another three years before the couple would enter a studio to commit the songs to tape. Part of the delay in making the record, says Finch, was a desire to find the right musical space, a unique sonic niche that could accommodate her ambitious reach. Unwilling to have her work perceived as that of just another timorous Lilith Fairy, Finch was adamant against making a paint-by-numbers singer-songwriter record.
"For a long time, I didn't know how to go about it," she says. "But by the time we actually got to make the album, I'd had enough time to get a pretty good idea of the kind of record I wanted to aspire to, at least."
With Prophet producing, playing myriad instruments, and creating a signature soundscape—a winking postmodern aesthetic that simultaneously references everything from Maxine Brown's Wand sessions to the elastic grooves of the hip-hop generation—Finch finally found the right framework to operate in.
Not surprisingly, the spirit of the late Dusty Springfield does guide much of Hotel San Jose, especially on cuts like "Him"—an ambiguous slice of girl vs. girl conflict inspired by Finch's observations as a part-time middle-school teacher.
"I came home one day after tutoring and thought about how girls that age start to hate each other when one of them gets a boyfriend, all the jealousy," says Finch. "That was kind of the seedling for that one."
While the album is fueled in large measure by distaff Memphis soul, it owes an equal debt to another '60s subgenre: housewife goth. "Oh yeah, I was listening to a lot of that stuff," confirms Finch, "lots of Bobbie Gentry." That dramatic arc is neatly played out in a number of cuts, from the haunted confessional "Trouble" to a disembodied cover of Moses Dillard's unremittingly bleak chestnut "Dead."
Elsewhere, the bold sweep of kettle drums and strings that accompany "Let's Stay Here" turn the tune into a twisted plea to salvage a dying love. "[klipshuctz] came up with the first few lines and handed those to me, and I just loved it right away," says Finch. "I immediately thought, 'This is the perfect postapocalyptic love song.'
"But then again," notes Finch, "there's a lot of lighthearted stuff on the record, too. I love Blondie, and on a song like 'Channel 9,' we had a little bit of that in mind."
Indeed, the aforementioned "Channel 9" does sound like Parallel Lines—as played by the Muscle Shoals Swampers. The resulting noise is a blur of new-wave synths and backwoods atmosphere, with Finch hinting at Debbie Harry's high register while tossing out breezy bon mots like "She just wants to entertain ya/Like she thinks she's Lotte Lenya."
"I didn't want all the lyrics to be totally serious," she says. "Some of them are pretty tongue-in-cheek."
That's especially true of "Women's Magazine," a comic litany of promises made in the Vogues and Cosmos of the world. Rendered as an electro-pop dance number, it's a tune that could conceivably be a hit for any number of Nashville women, but it is probably too clever by half for country radio. ("Make him pop the question and think it's his idea/ A survey of the worst hair from Cher to Princess Lea/How to turn a choir boy into a Pancho Villa/ . . . I read it in a women's magazine.")
Prophet—one of the best and certainly most underrated guitarists to emerge from the '80s indie-rock generation—proves the album's secret weapon. While he's tended to play down his fretwork on his own releases of late, here he roams free, dressing up the songs in various shades of blue, judiciously deploying a small army of strangulated riffs and woozy, wobbly fills.
While Prophet's skilled musicianship and klipshuctz's two-fisted writing style—one hand clutching a bottle, the other a dog-eared Bukowski paperback—are on full display throughout, the record remains very much Finch's baby.
A gifted vocalist, Finch doesn't strain like some leather-lunged diva, rather letting her crystalline tone and timbre carry a rucksack of emotions—like those of the bruised protagonist in "Talkin to You" and the wistful dreamer of "Annie Oakley." If the latter two songs capture her aching and faking like a woman, then the sad country breeze of "Guess I Wasn't So Smart" finds Finch breaking like a little girl: the lilts and dips in her voice revealing a scared lover quickly losing her bravado.
"I'm really happy with the way [the record] turned out," enthuses Finch. "It was long time to get it made, but I think the overall intention really comes across."
Released overseas in May on the U.K.'s Evangeline label and more recently in America on the Innerstate imprint, Hotel San Jose has been met with an overwhelmingly favorable response. Although Finch doesn't have any plans to support the record with a full tour, she has been opening shows on Prophet's current stateside swing and soldiering along, maintaining both a career and a marriage in the fairly unglamorous world of roadside diners and long van rides.
"Well, Motel 6s aren't really the most romantic places," says Finch of life on the road. "But we tend to get along better when we're on tour. I don't know why."
"I really do believe that driving two, three thousand miles a stretch in a van is either gonna tear you apart or bring you closer together," says Prophet. "In our case, it's brought us closer together. We're married, but we're also like Army buddies. There's a deeper bond there."
As Finch observes, being the only woman in the band—and one made up, as Prophet notes, of "gnarled, grizzled vets"—presents a unique set of challenges.
"I made a vow to myself a long time ago—and I haven't broken it yet—that I never want to be the last person down to the hotel lobby," laughs Finch. "I don't want to be the typical female who's holding everybody up putting on her makeup. So I try really hard to do my part.
"You know, I still can't lift my amps by myself," she jokes, "but I think they've all forgiven me for that."