Chris Whitley learned to play guitar while living in a log cabin in Vermont; the first album he bought was the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Smash Hits. That disparity helps to make sense of the stunning sweep of musical extremes Whitley made throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s. The Houston native moved around a lot in his youth, including stays in Mexico and Belgium, where he was part of a techno-pop outfit. He returned to the US in the late ’80s as something of a troubadour, reacting to his experiences overseas by concentrating on Dobro and acoustic guitar, developing his slide and finger-picking techniques.
Rootsy, dark and intense, Living With the Law is a magnificent debut. Whitley’s fresh, dust-bowl balladry with modern grit gave a musical voice to angst a few months before Nirvana put the word in the collective teenage vocabulary. His spectral National steel guitar slide work is otherworldly, and his elastic vocals — gritty mumbles and falsetto yodels — can soothe or frighten, depending on a song’s tone. The lyrical content — lovers sweating in sunbaked desert towns, drunken confessionals and violent confrontations between rivals of uncertain moral standing — tie Whitley to blues tradition, but the production by Daniel Lanois protégé Malcolm Burn is resolutely modern, reinforcing the big sky feeling with tremendous aural spaciousness but steering clear of too much airiness by grounding everything in Whitley’s earthy guitar. That said, it’s the songwriting that really shines here. Adopting an outlaw persona, Whitley displays a knack for vivid, cinematic detail and chilling images (“Baby got a vision, child / Like a loaded gun / She use my body / Like carrion crow”). “Phone Call From Leavenworth” is a desolate one-character drama; “Big Sky Country” is a spiritual brimming with hope.
The Poison Girl EP shows what Whitley can do in a live setting. Half of the six songs were recorded solo in his living room, a perfect fit given the intimate nature of his material. The full-band tracks don’t lose much of that feeling, either.
Whitley took a long break after Living With the Law — part of it spent in rehab — and emerged closer to the Hendrix side of his musical makeup on Din of Ecstasy. “Din” is the operative word: Whitley puts down the Dobro (most of the time), straps on a Stratocaster and lets wail with an electric rock fury steeped in classic rock influences and a variety of New York sounds from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth. (That Whitley covers the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Some Candy Talking” contributes to the album’s Lou Reed aspect.) Dinosaur Jr is a touchstone for the song “Din,” while “Know” and “Ultraglide” nod in the general direction of Seattle. Din of Ecstasy isn’t entirely derivative: Whitley is a hot electric player, and the album retains his distinctive arranging touch in the fast funk groove of “O God My Heart Is Ready,” the winding, hypnotic builds of “Guns & Dolls” and “WPL.” “New Machine” shows he hasn’t abandoned the first album’s rootsiness, and his imagery is also intact, from the “red and yellow roses, nipple rings and tattoos” in “Narcotic Prayer” to the pagan sexual rites described in “WPL.” A promo-only EP of the time, Liberation or Death, joined two album tracks with one of Whitley’s uncompromising mottos, “Liberation or Death.” When a man describes his art as “Visceral latitudes, logos and Eros, liberation or death,” you know he’s more than a mere craftsman.
The 90-second acoustic reverie “As Flat as the Earth” which opens Terra Incognita may have been meant to reassure the roots music aficionados alienated by Din of Ecstasy‘s clatter and squawk, but “Automatic” is muscular rock and the Amelia Earhart tribute “Power Down” overlays Whitley’s songcraft with noisy effects. Much of the record evinces mechanical imagery in titles like “Gasket” and elliptical lyrics about steel and faulty airplanes, but the magnificent “Weightless” involves secrets untold, a lover betrayed, a “child falling from above helpless to your love” and being “lonelier than God.”
Continuing his unpredictable career arc, Whitley released Dirt Floor, recorded in a single winter’s day back in his Vermont log cabin. He sings and plays guitar and banjo in what might be considered a live album without audience. The singing is clipped, slurred and crooned; the tempos uncertain. “From One Island to Another” opens jazzy and languid before turning mildly dissonant. “Altitude” is slashing country blues, the title track a striking and not entirely comforting folk gospel. The production is non-existent, but it’s an effective album, all 27 minutes of it. In “Indian Summer,” Whitley sings lines that could be his outlook on life: “It’s so hard to keep warm now / so easy to get burned.”
While neither Live at Martyr’s nor Perfect Day, a collection of covers, is essential to anyone but diehard fans, each contains some remarkable moments. Whitley is a mercurial live performer, fiercely focused in one performance and sloppy and meandering in the next. Live at Martyr’s has a tightly wound “Home Is Where You Get Across,” a deliberate and poised medley of “Big Sky Country” and “Gasket” and a spindly cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” “Serve You,” now a Whitley standard, gets its debut here. The live records are showcases for his idiosyncratic vocals, which range from a fluttery Jeff Buckley falsetto to a guttural blues bark, often in a single song. Perfect Day offers Lou Reed’s title track, a couple of Dylan songs and blues classics by Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and others. Billy Martin and Chris Wood (two-thirds of Medeski, Martin, and Wood) provide accompaniment.
Whitley shifted gears again for Rocket House, his first fully produced studio album in more than four years. The tape loops, turntable scratching and plucked banjo in “To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)” are new to Whitley’s history of blurring genre boundaries. The subtly driving “Say Goodbye,” with its soaring chorus, is simply a great rock single that could have happily sat next to Coldplay on the radio. A studio incarnation of “Serve You,” sung with Whitley’s daughter Trixie, is a seemingly simple blues ballad gussied up by synthesizer bleeps and a guitar solo that could have been borrowed from another track. DJ Logic, Dave Matthews and Bruce Hornsby add notable levels of musical complexity and variety to the mix. One of the best, and most approachable, albums of Whitley’s prolific career.
Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001 is a compilation of tracks originally released on four different labels. It combines some of the obvious highlights from Living With the Law, Din of Ecstasy, Terra Incognita and Dirt Floor with a few rarities, an intriguing demo medley of “Say Goodbye/Long Way Around” and an atmospheric Daniel Lanois remix of “Weightless.”
Whitley’s pace of production continued unabated with a full-band album and then, in rapid succession, two more intimate records in 2004, all recorded in Dresden, where Whitley has recently been based. His German sidemen, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht, are prominent on Hotel Vast Horizon. “Insurrection at Newtown” has a powerful rock groove from a pre-recorded drum track, and the title track is a partial return to the ambience of Living With the Law. “New Lost World” and “Blues for André” are jazzier in tone than most of Whitley’s work, mostly due to Macht’s simmering snare drumming and Schramm’s acoustic bass.
The solo acoustic Weed consists of remakes of older songs, including “Big Sky Country” and Din of Ecstasy‘s “Narcotic Prayer.” What is most striking about these unadorned performances is the richness not only of Whitley’s guitar playing, but the vivid imagery of his impressionist lyrics. Whitley has a keen ear for startling and imaginative turns of phrase, and his singing is consistently inventive, with the fluidity and playful phrasings of a jazz artist. War Crime Blues, available only on the Internet or at shows, mixes recent compositions and covers. The thematically linked collection includes the Clash’s scathing anti-draft commentary “The Call Up” and the bitter title track. “Made From Dirt” and “Dead Cowboy Song,” both slashing acoustic blues, display Whitley’s trademark imagery (even some recycled past lyrics). Although it includes the fuzzed-up “God Left Town,” the album concludes with an a cappella rendition of the pop standard “Nature Boy.”
The Whitley parade continued on the dark and sexy Soft Dangerous Shores. The disc’s dominant theme is the allure and fear of sexual intimacy, with subtexts of virus, violence and sacrifice. Malcolm Burn’s production gives Whitley’s guitar and voice — and the rhythm section of Schramm and Macht — a subtly shifting electronic foundation. The lyrics are more direct than usual for Whitley; in “City of Women” he muses, “I know these desires could kill me dead.” The steel guitar-plucked “As Day Is Long” could have been on Living With the Law, and it isn’t the only throwback here. The record also features a fully fleshed-out and mildly funky version of “Her Furious Angels” (from War Crime Blues); these production touches don’t serve the song as well. But “Last Million Miles” and “Fireroad (for Two)” get the balance right.
Chris Whitley died November 20, 2005 of complications from lung cancer. He was 45.