Theme projects can be dicey propositions. For every successful one that examines a subject in a song cycle, many more fail miserably as performers strain and stretch lyrics to fit the matter at hand. Leave it to San Francisco's Chuck Prophet to turn that generalization upside-down on his twelfth studio release since the 1990 dissolution of Green on Red. This concept set centers on his San Francisco hometown. The 12 tunes on Temple Beautiful, named after an influential and long defunct S.F. punk club, sometimes only obliquely reference the city. In fact, without Prophet's song-by-song explanations in the press notes, it's often impossible to place this rootsy, melodic rock & roll to any particular location. Still, Prophet proudly declares that the album was "made in San Francisco, by San Franciscans about San Francisco." Regardless, this is another in a remarkably consistent series of terrific Prophet discs, filled with tightly wound blues-based rock, driven by his unassuming talk-sung vocals and ever-present, always imaginative Telecaster riffs. The dreamy trip-hop beats that once played a distinctive part in Prophet's sound have been replaced by a tough four-piece augmented by occasional horns, keyboards from producer Brad Jones, violin and cello, and even a guest vocal from San Francisco's Roy Loney, founding member of, and frontman for, the legendary Flamin' Groovies. The rather open-ended theme namechecks everyone from world-renowned S. F. figures such as Willie Mays to the far more obscure Emperor Norton, a British eccentric who moved there and a figure only those from the area would likely recognize. The 1978 Harvey Milk/George Moscone double homicide by Dan White is referenced in "White Night, Big City," but even those lyrics are obtuse with neither of the protagonist's names mentioned, although what sounds like found audio footage from the subsequent White Night Riots is a subtle addition. Some of the material least connected to the S.F. topic is the most successful. The lonely souls that populate "The Museum of Broken Hearts" have only a tangential relationship to AIDs, but the result is one of Prophet's most beautiful, moving, and mournful ballads, helped enormously by a simple, somewhat psychedelic elegiac violin that weaves throughout the chorus. The short '50s pastiche with Stax-styled soul sax and wife Stephanie Finch (oddly M.I.A. on many of these songs), "Little Girl, Little Boy" is a frisky antidote to some of the songwriter's darker, skewed visions. The latter is exemplified by the rocking and murderous "Who Shot John," another seemingly non-S.F. related item. Ultimately, despite his loftier intentions, this works perfectly well as another excellent Chuck Prophet collection that for most listeners only marginally adheres to its stated concept but is no less impressive because of that.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz