GRACEFUL GOODBYE | Chocolate Genius

By David D. Robbins Jr. Their Bated Breath
Artist: Chocolate Genius Inc. Album: Swansongs

“‘Cuz I’ve said all that I’m fit to say / I got nothin’ left to give away / I’m ready now.” — Marc Anthony Thompson

arc Anthony Thompson’s music has always been highly personal. He’s written about his mother’s Alzheimers, faded dreams, next-day hangovers, desire, self-loathing, familial love and even the despair of not being the man he really wants to be. On his debut record as Chocolate Genius, he told stories of characters that seemed like the man himself, however veiled. He sung in a low whisper, full of soul, genuineness and amaranthine torment. If there’s one constancy to Chocolate Genius’ four records, it’s the notion that past, present and future don’t run linearly. The mind of the man at the center of Chocolate Genius Inc., is peopled with the cities, eras, streets, homes, loves, hurts, and beautifully personal historical moments he holds dear. It’s at the heart of every one of his songs.

He included his mother’s voice on his song “Perfida” back in 2001; recorded his most recent album using a piano he played on in his youth, and finished a new track “Sit and Spin” on the day of his father’s death. It’s beautiful to think of Thompson’s records giving his parents an eternal life, but also how significantly they’ve effected his sound and perspective, infusing it with a musical empathy for things lost in the fire. His music envelopes you in the sweep of his old memories, internal hauntings, tragic losses, desires and brilliant flights of imagination.

It’s impossible to pigeon-hole Chocolate Genius. His style includes the quirkiness of Tom Waits, the artistry of Prince, the vitality of Sly Stone, the off-kilter cool-slack of Basehead, with a underlying current of funk, blues, and jazz. At times his sound is exceptionally modern and idiosyncratic. At other times, he shows a love for the antique: folk-blues ballads with acoustic guitar. But his compositions are always uniquely his own. His older songs, “Rats Under Waterfalls” and “Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)”, are both odd and prettily harmonious. “Don’t Look Down” is a soul classic that one could imagine being sung by Donny Hathaway. “Clinic” is wistful, and as sadly tender as a rainy-day reflection: “Maybe she will lose my number / Or maybe I will die of shame / But in this dark stall I wonder / Wonder if I’ll sign my name.” One of his best tracks, the mood-drenched “For One More Look At You”, aches with a carnality so visceral it feels like the humidity in the room just increased: “I’d take it in if I had the room / I’d leave it off if I could / I’d let it go, if I could just find something to hold on to … / For one more look at you.” The range of his music is expansive, moving from the world-wearied crooner of “Clinic” and the Waits-like cabaret man of “Life”, to the sensual swagger of “Glorious” with its in-your-face lyricism: “Do you have 10 toes? / Do I really wanna know? / Hell, yeah / I can see it in your eyes, / Like a thousand different guys / Hell, yeah / Can you smell the carpet on me … / Is it glorious? / So glorious. / Do you think that you are free? / Can you say that I am me? / Hell, yeah … / Has nature been good to ya? / Isn’t it glorious? / ‘Bout the story of us.”

Never one to hide behind wordplay, his new album “Swansongs”, doesn’t disguise its intent. The Chocolate Genius project is officially over. (Or is it?) Thompson’s next outpouring may just be under his own name.Who knows? It’s easy to measure the ups and downs of Thompson’s life over the last twelve years by listening to any of his three previous records, “Black Music” (1998), “GodMusic” (2001), and “Black Yankee Rock” (2005). Many fans first heard Chocolate Genius, while watching the music program Sessions at West 54th, as Talking Heads frontman David Byrne introduced this master of avant-garde neo-soul. Thompson and his band were firing off one masterly track after another. And everyone who saw the program knows exactly where this story is going, because it was the performance of “My Mom” that signaled the range of this man’s abilities. Thompson, in black-brimmed hat, sat down at a piano and began playing chords so sad they seemed the only sounds in the world. He sang lyrics with an Everyman eloquence. It’s a song Thompson wrote about visiting his mother during her descent into senility. There’s hardly a greater offering of honesty and musicianship a person could give to an audience. The song bloomed with a nostalgia for childhood and the days when his mother was healthy, “It’s been five years and some change / And this world is gettin’ so strange / But this old house smells just the same / And my mom … she don’t remember my name / She’s my mom.” The audience was still. The song felt like a spiritual deterioration. Cello moans. Legendary guitarist Marc Ribot supplied pained feedback behind the vocals. Thompson’s piano notes fell gently as autumn leaves, crumbling into a choppy dissonance. The lyrics shifted delicately from the early verse “she’s my mom” to the closing line, “that’s not my mom” — as the song slipped away into silence. It was the work of a master. An unearthed American treasure. All who heard counted themselves extremely lucky.

Ever since his first record, Thompson has been a musician’s musician. You may have never heard of his name, but great musicians know exactly who he is, as evidenced by the list of talent he’s been associated with over the years: Ribot, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, Van Dyke Parks, Meshell Ndegeocello, Doveman, John Medeski, Chris Wood, and Bruce Springsteen. He’s also moonlighted in film, writing soundtracks for “American Splendor” (the stunning “Ain’t That Peculiar”, a re-working of a song sung by Marvin Gaye), “Twin Falls Idaho”, and the Obie-winning “A Huey P. Newton Story”. But it’s his personal narratives listeners fell in love with most. Thompson’s first official song as Chocolate Genius, “Life”, combined a number of divergent elements: idiosyncratic and poetically refined songwriting, with soulful vocals and a Vaudevillian’s charm. It marked quite a beginning for a project that would end up spanning four albums and 12 years.

Where “Black Music” was Chocolate Genius’ introduction — “Swansongs” is  the final chapter, featuring a number of goodbyes. Thompson recorded vocals from his father who passed away before the record was completed — just like he recorded his mother’s voice. One of the new standout tracks, the organ-based “Ready Now”, plays in part like a farewell to music, and in part like a church hymn about being tired and looking for heavenly ascension: “Swans are singing in my yard / I’m ready now / It’s been so cold / It’s been so hard / I’m ready now / ‘Cuz I’ve said all that I’m fit to say / I got nothin’ left to give away / I’m ready now … / It’s too late, the damage is done / And I am too tired to run / I’m ready now.” It’s a resplendent dirge, showcasing Thompson’s patented smokey vocals and high falsetto. “Polanski” is a song loosely based on the famed director, but uses him more as a vehicle for writing about what it means to leave home and be away from those you love: “I’m gettin’ on that plane / I ain’t comin’ back … / Tell my wife to sell my ring / Because we don’t matter, anymore / Anyway.” It’s an exile song, one of a handful of mournful tracks that feels more cathartic than sullen. “Until She Smiles” opens with percolation, and eerie guitar melding into a textured ballad. “How I Write My Songs” is airily atmospheric, showing Thompson’s gift for musical transitions and distinctive lyricism, “I show my soul to the woman at the bank / I show my soul to woman at the liquor store / I show my soul to woman at the 7-Eleven / She said, ‘Is that all?'” “Swansongs” is Chocolate Genius’ beautiful vanishing act into Chocolate Genius Inc. Isn’t it glorious?

Note: Artwork by David D. Robbins Jr. uses photo from artist’s MySpace Page. The lyrics mentioned in the review are all unofficial. The album comes out Sept. 14, 2010 via One Little Indian Records.

Chocolate Genius Inc. “Enough For You”

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