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Once More, but Different

The mercurial Marc Anthony Thompson is back with a new album. And a new name. New sound too. On a new label.

July 26, 1998|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer?

When we last glimpsed our harried protagonist, "Chocolate Genius" (then better known as Marc Anthony Thompson), he was gathering up his 64-pack of sonic colors and high-tailing it home.

A metaphorical home that is.

But first a little context.

Hit the rewind: Late '80s. L.A. stages and airwaves are alive with the heralded new border-blurring voices of such black artists as Tracy Chapman, Terence Trent D'Arby, Soul II Soul.

Good time to be an artist flirting with the notion of erasing lines; better yet, to be an artist who articulated the expanse of his or her musical experience--beyond what were then the cramped quarters of hip-hop and pop-tinged R&B.

And so, in that milieu, Thompson was certain that his unconventional take--which borrowed from art rock and funk to glam/glitter to edges of thrash with a few soul riffs thrown in for good measure--would get optimum exposure.

Signed to Warner Bros. Records, he delivered two albums, 1984's "Marc Anthony Thompson" and 1989's "Watts and Paris." Both, arrogant in their idiosyncrasies, pointedly questioned the constricting categories not just in black music but music in general.

After much anticipation, on the eve of "Watts and Paris' " release, suddenly everything unraveled.

In retrospect, both sides--Thompson and Warner Bros--have offered their critiques--more records should have been made between the first and second releases, promotion should have been much more aggressive and the recordings themselves more focused.

But at the time, all that was summed up this way: "They told me," Thompson recalls, " 'We don't know what to do with it.' "

"Watts and Paris" received sporadic though enthusiastic airplay on public radio and critical support in the alternative press, but all told, the experience was enough to prompt a major reassessment. Then an address change. Sales of the two albums were negligible.

Plugging into the New York club scene, Thompson immediately felt it more like home than his native L.A.

"New York definitely opened my eyes. In L.A., I felt a lot of people were looking for success, record deals. There's not really a scene like in New York, where people just love to play," he says now. "So I got [to New York], and all of a sudden I was a like a kid again. I remembered what it was like to just be playing with and for people who were open to different things. It completely opened me up."

Thompson (who eschews the age question, now that he's wandered deep into the realm beyond 35) waxes buoyant these days. Motor-mouthing on a humid afternoon, he's appraising things in lighter shades. In other words, don't let the mid-tempo, moody backdrop and heavy heart of his new "Black Music" album--due in stores Tuesday--fool you.

With the collection from V2 Records, says Thompson of his coy invention Chocolate Genius, "I wasn't trying to distance myself from those other records. I just wanted something that was sexier, that was obviously like a new beginning."

The persona began as a side project in the mid-'90s. "I used to do these shows as the Chocolate Genius--kind of Don Rickles meets Jimi Hendrix. I was just kind of acerbic, completely rail at the audience for a half hour and then I'd play one song."

"Black Music" ratchets the conceit up a bit. Though, says Thompson, it's not titled such just for the sake of irony. Though the entendres, as it were, are more than double.

"It just seemed perfect to me, especially having gone through what I'd gone through. But, really, I don't have the least bit of cynicism about any of this."

For a number of reasons then, "Black Music" feels like cracking open that cheap, for-decoration lock of someone's stashed-under-the-mattress diary. First-person interior is a new tack for a musician who has been far more comfortable playing peekaboo with the oblique.

"It was like reading a really good short story," says Kate Hyman, artists-and-repertoire head of V2, which is distributed by BMG. "But it was real. It was Marc gallivanting with his demons."

Co-produced by genre-bender Craig Street and Abe Laboriel Jr., with cameos by Marc Ribot, David Torn, John Medeski and Chris Wood, these musically broad-based sketches, which giddily defy categorization, are preoccupied with abandonment, loss, confrontation, consequence and comeuppance: life's cycles.

What humor is present scores like a blade. "It's not like a Sybil thing," says Laboriel of the record's sonic sweep, "It does have a focus, and that's Marc."

The dirge-like "My Mom" meditates on the ravages of Alzheimer's. "Life" is a theatrical, clanging gut-bucket all-out that echoes Waits and Weill. All told in the voice of soul confessor, it's the view from the bottom looking up through the grate.

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