Roasted and reissued Chesnutts

To the uninitiated, Athens-based songwriter Vic Chesnutt can be a hard sell: His frail physique and reputation for elliptical lyrics paint a picture of a twee dilettante, an aggressively oddball performer championed by critics and musicians who like to prove how broad their tastes are. But Chesnutt's first four albums, freshly reissued by New West Records, give lie to that preconception, offering a strong argument for his deserved place in the pantheon of artists — from Robyn Hitchcock to Victoria Williams to Bob Dylan — who transcend their signature idiosyncrasies.

Of the four discs, Little gets the least handling: The original song order remains intact, appended with five additional numbers (including a starker version of West of Rome's "Miss Mary") recorded during the same remarkable one-day session. In his liner notes, producer Michael Stipe likens Little to a field recording. The analogy is apt: Recorded quickly and sparingly, it feels like a document of a world that exists just beneath our own, steeped in familiar Southern musical and literary traditions but existing separate from our everyday boundaries and culture.

That world is embodied in Chesnutt's striking voice, a brittle instrument barbed with a Southern gothic twang, and the songs don't come across as products of that voice so much as extensions of it: caustic and wistful, piercingly vulnerable and unshakably poised. It's easy to misread the defiant refrain of "Speed Racer" ("I'm not a victim! I am intelligent!") as mere pathos, but it's a sympathetic echo of the prickly will to power bristling in the works of Tennessee Williams and other literate Southern iconoclasts. Throughout, Chesnutt's wordy stream of consciousness is highlighted by the songs' austere backdrops.

West of Rome — also produced by Stipe — builds on Little's songwriting template, but expands its atmosphere and tonal range. The original opener, "Latent/Blatant," with its decidedly Stipe-ian delivery (the song sounds much closer to R.E.M. than Chesnutt) is relegated to the bonus section, and the album's mood and flow benefit from the modified track listing. This is a much more confident document, with Chesnutt coming into his voice as both a singer and a songwriter, erasing any residual images of the artist as merely a quirky oddity. The bonus tracks — especially the commanding "Where's the Clock" and the poignant "Flying" — only reinforce that notion.

Oddly enough, "Latent/Blatant" serves as an omen of sorts: 1993's Drunk burnishes Chesnutt's conventionally unconventional template with leaps into uber-accessible pop rock, snarling, sometimes dissonant guitar fuzz and even what sounds like a Camper Van Beethoven pastiche ("Gluefoot"). These efforts, while jarring, are effective (save for the belabored "Dodge" and "Super Tuesday"), and they're girded by some of Chesnutt's most affecting songs yet: "When I Ran Off & Left Her," "Supernatural," and the strongly melodic "One of Many," adapted from poet Stevie Smith (who's also referenced on Little). This reissue (complete with new cover and package design) gets irretrievably weighed down, however, by a surfeit of bonus tracks, some of them good ("Cutty Sark," "Bad Boy Town"), some forced ("Great Buffet"), and some pointless (a rote cover of Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and a version of "Gravity of the Situation," which would be more at home on the next album).

Is the Actor Happy? reins in Drunk's excesses, smoothing out the hard-rock moments for arrangements that occasionally echo with brawny guitar lines hewn from Southern rock, making sense of Brute (Chesnutt's unlikely collaboration with Widespread Panic). Chesnutt's loopy poetics are at their tightest on the arresting "Strange Language," "Thailand" and the ambling story-song "Onion Soup," which aspires to a kind of "Tangled Up in Blue" aesthetic. The bonus tracks are agreeable enough but don't stand out, save for a grating bit of nonsense cooked up with members of Lambchop. But they don't detract from the album's graceful, accessible elegance, which brings Chesnutt full circle from the raw power of his Spartan debut and solidifies his evolution into a mature, intelligent and wholly unique talent.-- Kevin Forest Moreau