Chameleon finds former Hot Rize hotshot Tim O’Brien puttering around co-producer Gary Paczosa’s garage with a “hillbilly apparatus” that includes guitar, mandolin and bouzouki. O’Brien plays the hell out of them, swinging minor-key blues on “Where’s Love Come From” and making something nicely obsessive of his fiddle accompaniment on “Phantom Phone Call”. He sings in a warm, bluesy voice, and the material — by O’Brien and a brace of collaborators that includes David Olney and John Hadley — confounds expectations in charming fashion. On “Phantom Phone Call”, he declares that “the mobile phone is a threat to the human race,” while “Megna’s” is a piece of reconstituted childhood memory on which O’Brien sings the praises of a vendor whose melons, okra and aubergines gain him the attention of “pretty women.”
Chameleon transcends formalism; O’Brien has something to say about imperialism on “This World Was Made For Everyone”, which praises “our robust economy” in ambiguous fashion. “Father Forgive Me” features an appearance by Jesus and O’Brien himself, who meditates on fate, “the midnight garden of agony,” and gigs that compromise a working musician’s soul. “Hoss Race” places the singer at the track, where, for once, he’s winning.
Jaunty, accomplished and funny, Chameleon presents a persona along with the amazing licks; this is an average guy too observant for his own good. Global warming foils his suicide attempt in “World Of Trouble”, which also mentions Humvees and Asian bird flu. Is it time to “plant orange groves in the Smokies”? Could be, now that he mentions it.