Not since Lou Reed paid homage to the city and era that forged him with New York has there been a song cycle dedicated to a place and reality that offers the core immediacy with the thump, churn and ferocity of Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful. It’s a stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll record where the drums pump and echo, guitars slash and buzz, horns squawk like geese with rhythm, and the former wunderkind of progressive cosmic cowboys Green On Red bristles with an intensity that makes great rock burn.
More than anything—even the punk aggression, the unadorned arrangements that slice to the core, the voice that tears through layers of guitars, bass and drums—there’s a far-flung Americana at work. Named for Jim Jones’ San Francisco-based temple, the title track is all marching band pound-down, while the strummy electric guitar-basted “Castro Halloween” evokes the sweetness of Alex Chilton’s power-pop and the promise of holidays burning off to leave the wistfulness of what is. The post-Western “I Felt Like Jesus” is equal parts Clint Eastwood and Azetec Radio, xylophone flourishes popping around the melody.
Noir machismo that’s so pulp West Coast pushes the flat rock of “Who Shot John,” and the Paisley Underground scene of LA in the ‘80s sweeps through the character sketch “He Came From So Far Away,” ethereal background vocals falling in sheets and whispering the details of an illusionary life that may or may not be what is presented.
It is the details that make Prophet explode. Loping through a strtaight-forward midtempo— lacerated with bits of twangy guitar—of “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat,” it’s an afternoon painted vividly, a conflict torqued and bravado bristling in the seemingly ordinary moment. Not quite Bukowski, the tale has a beat poetry sensibility that honors San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, and enough rising and falling “ohhhhOOOhhhoooHHHohOH” chorus to make Legionnaires of us all.
That is Prophet’s vexation: maintaining the innocence in the knowing. “Little Girl, Little Boy”—featuring wife Stephanie Finch—is pure ‘50s swoon via Ramones nostalgia to keep it from Sha-Na-Na-ery. Even more retrofit is “White Night, Big City” that scrapes Blondie-esque punk doowop for its essence.
Still, it’s Lou Reed who keeps flickering. With the pounding, half-barked “Play That Song Again,” it’s a more likable “Sweet Jane”/”Walk On The Wild Side” hybrid, also suggesting Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal, which Prophet co-wrote—and the slow-mourn blues of “Emperor Norton” that is an unsentimental caution, Prophet channels Reed’s pervasive urban edge without overwhelming his own voice.