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CHARLIE CHESTERMAN (Buy CDs by this artist)
From the Book of Flames (Slow River) 1994
Studebakersfield (Slow River) 1996

As leader of Boston's rocking Scruffy the Cat, guitarist Charlie Chesterman kept moving his band toward a rootsy sensibility (Scruffy's 1988 Moons of Jupiter was produced by Memphis mud king Jim Dickinson). With that credible background, his solo rebirth into the '90s vogue for refreshing singer/songwriter rock with unprecedented amounts of country honk sounds right on time. From the Book of Flames is one of those unadorned one-take rustic winners that gets down to cases, making the you-and-me lyrics ring powerfully true no matter where one stands on the universal roundabout. Singing evocative lyrics that don't mince words in suffering the reverses of romance, Chesterman dresses up his serious emotions in occasional horn charts ("Got You Bad," "Hello Judy!") and silly song titles. "Sexy Rickenbacker" slides a hairline of difference between Byrds country and power pop to ask "could you be the one for me?" and mean it; "Sleeping With Nero and Dreaming of Smokey the Bear" is a soulful (and direct) tearjerker with pedal steel; "Pink Lemonade" needs only one acoustic guitar to say "I'm not joking now I'm blue/When I think about the day I fell for you." Likewise, the album's most moving song, "If You Were Mine," is an uncertain but unmistakably real cry from the heart that Chesterman does alone on clinky electric guitar. Too unassuming to sound premeditated, From the Book of Flames is a potent root soup heated to a pungent simmer.

Although there's still some western swing-styled rock, horns and cello on Studebakersfield, Chesterman's second album is pretty much a country record, albeit an eclectic, irreverent one. While basting himself in the genre's usual emotionalism ("Heart of a Fool," "Lonesome Cowboy's Lament," "Mister Blue"), he still cleverly manages to stay out of the clutches of clichés. If Chesterman can't quite make a fertile spread of this strip-mined wasteland, he has no trouble cultivating a nice little patch of it for his own sweet garden.

[Ira Robbins]