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** 1/2 Vic Chesnutt, “About to Choke,” Capitol.

Earlier this year, R.E.M., the Smashing Pumpkins and other admirers lent big-name credibility to this cult-hero singer-songwriter by recording his songs for a benefit tribute album. As intriguing as that collection was, Chesnutt’s fifth album--his first for a major label--reminds us there’s nothing like going to the source.

“About to Choke” consists of elaborate kiss-offs, affectionate satires, gothic contemplations on decay and renewal and detailed accounts of painful trials. When Chesnutt sings, “What a great day to come out of a coma,” he does so with an authority that’s the province of those who have been tested in battle against demons and darkness.

The Georgian’s spindly voice has gained some heft and expressive character, and his distinctive sensibility helps reconcile the record’s disparate musical strains--a basic folk-rock, a harder-edged rock and a spare, cloistered solo approach. Still, the album pulls in too many directions to work as an organic whole. For this ornery and idiosyncratic, whimsical and mischievous original, that’s not a big surprise.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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