For years, Chuck Prophet did his talking with his fingers, playing the lone guitar-slinger to Danny Stuart’s downbeat raconteur in the core of Green on Red. So it was a pleasant surprise when the San Francisco native finally opened up his mouth and his songbook, revealing a deft, brooding and fully formed singer/songwriter. Brother Aldo introduces what is actually a duo; on most songs, Prophet is joined by singer/accordionist Stephanie Finch, whose forlorn soprano provides ethereal counterpoint to his dark, gravely tone. The other key bandmember is Chris Isaak bassist Roly Salley; pianist Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn’s songwriting partner, also shows up on two tracks. There’s plenty of Prophet’s greasy string-bending to be found, set in a sepia-colored semi-acoustic context that includes catchy twang-pop (“Face to the Wall” and the title track), circus-barker cabaret (“Step Right This Way”) and heavenly harmony-driven melodicism (“Tune of an Evening”). There’s also “Look Both Ways,” a song written with Chris Cacavas and Steve Wynn that later turned up on one of Wynn’s records.
In a typical dumb-luck music biz move, Prophet got himself a decent European record deal — only to end up licensing his second effort to the same US indie that manufactured and distributed his first one. Its commercial viability notwithstanding, Balinese Dancer finds Prophet with the blues — and playing them too. Song titles like “Baton Rouge” and “Savannah” speak to the record’s rootsy Southern feel, though the smoking swamp-rock is augmented by grandiose pop touches and an assortment of organs, Latin percussion and folky stringed things. Highlights include the raucous, party-ready title track, the glittering melancholia of “One Last Dance” and the plaintive, loping “Who Am I Foolin.” Finch takes on more of a subordinate role here, which is unfortunate; among the other contributors are Salley, David Grisman, Al Kooper, drummer Kenneth Blevins (John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth) and steel guitar ace Greg Leisz.
By this point, Prophet’s solo career was a full-time gig, as he and Stuart brought Green on Red to a close in 1994. On the Steve Berlin-produced Feast of Hearts, he hooks up with the well-traveled Cracker rhythm section of Michael Urbano and Davey Faragher. (Coincidentally, former Camper Van Beethovenite David Immerglück plays mandolin and steel guitar on a few songs, though Greg Leisz is back as well.) Several numbers were co-written with Jules Shear. Not surprisingly, the result is more polished and energetic, with reverberant production that’s not quite a deficit but definitely comes at the expense of Prophet’s rough-hewn individualism. Still, within the jaunty rock’n’roll competence lies some of his most sustained and eloquent playing. When he’s not rolling through grooving burners like “Hungry Town,” Prophet demonstrates new-found melodic prowess on jewels like the quietly breezy “Oh Mary” and the elegiac “Battered and Bruised.”