The Popdose Guide to Chris Whitley

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

guidelogo.gif(This guide was originally published in 2005, before Chris Whitley’s passing. It’s been expanded and edited, but may still contain a few vestiges of its original form. Apologies in advance.)

Let’s talk about the blues.

It only seems appropriate, after all, given that it’s Tuesday, the bluesiest day of the work week — last weekend a distant memory, Friday a tantalizing speck on the horizon — and given that we haven’t really had a blues discussion here before. Oh, sure, I’ve mentioned the blues, usually as a reference point for something an artist is doing, but that’s mostly just laziness on my part. It isn’t that I’m a blues scholar, able to draw lines between pop and jazz and rock and blues; it’s that the blues is where pretty much everything comes from, so it’s usually an easy connection to make. The blues, as a genre, is the primordial sludge of American music. You can’t get away from it (at least, not if you want to write a good song) — it’s who we are. People who say they don’t like blues music don’t have any idea what they’re talking about; what they’re usually reacting to is an image in their confused brain of an evil-eyed man in a pork-pie hat, his chair tipped back against the wall next to the jukebox, guitar on his lap, muttering something about how his baby done left him.

That isn’t the blues. It’s a spot on the blues’ pinky fingernail. It is, though, a helpful starting point for today’s discussion, because it’s illustrative of the 20th-century archetype of the bluesman, and serves as a useful backdrop for today’s Popdose Guide to Chris Whitley.

Initially, Whitley appeared to be a fresh update on that evil-eyed guy leaning up against the jukebox, but over time, he proved himself to be something else entirely. An inveterate wanderer — both literally and figuratively — who seemed almost incapable of doing the same thing twice, he fidgeted restlessly with the established form and shape of the genre for over a decade before his untimely death in 2005. But like any great songwriter, no matter which way he approached the blues — stripped-down National guitar, turntables and beats, or other angles entirely — his vision held true. He embodied the blues — but not the bright, cuddly approximation favored by B.B. King and guys who wear Dockers. Whitley’s music breathes rheumy breaths; it rises with a menacing rattle, falls with an unsteady hiss, and drips with the burning dread of approaching death. It may not always be pretty — in fact, it’s often damn unsettling — but it’s usually great and always unflinchingly honest.

Here we go.


Living With the Law (1991)
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Whitley wasn’t a kid when Law was recorded, so the album is a lot more full-bodied and self-assured than you might expect from a debut artist, but he was clearly still learning his way. Consequently, the album bears the heavy stamp of producer Malcolm Burn, a Lanois protege, and is unquestionably Whitley’s most accessible release. This isn’t a drawback by any stretch — Burn doesn’t compromise Whitley’s artistic vision at all. He just rounds off a few of the sharper edges, using production to build the atmosphere and establish the mood of the album. It works extremely well; Whitley’s nasty National guitar and Burn’s Lanois-ish ambiance conjure up pictures of dusty taverns, dirt roads, and blood-red sunsets. The whole thing is caked in dried sweat, and even though it didn’t sell many copies, it attracted a lot of positive critical attention. “Big Sky Country” (download) should’ve been a hit; “Poison Girl” (download) could’ve been.

A lot of sophomore artists damage their careers by releasing carbon copies of their debuts, but Whitley’s is so good that he probably would have been given a pass had he returned with a Living With the Law part II; in fact, that’s probably what Sony was hoping for. I don’t think anyone could have guessed what they’d actually get.


Din of Ecstasy (1995)
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The first thing you need to know about Din of Ecstasy is that, according to legend, it isn’t the album Whitley originally submitted to Sony as the follow-up to his debut. That album, so the story goes, was rejected by the label, and listening to Ecstasy, a person can’t help but wonder what it sounded like. How totally left-field would it have to have been in order for the label to reject it and release Ecstasy instead?

The mind boggles, because Din of Ecstasy is probably the most difficult, confounding, reactionary second album I’ve ever heard. It differs from the debut so completely that Whitley may as well have titled it Go Fuck Yourselves — listening to it in 1995, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the pressure of following up Law might have driven him insane. Looking at the rest of his career now, it seems more likely that he’d just gotten bored with straight National blues. What he opted to make instead was something like a heavy metal album.

Some metal acts — like, say, Slayer — get their point across with speed and force; others — for instance, early Sabbath — forgo speed and brute power for a kind of slow, lumbering menace. Whitley goes this route on Din of Ecstasy; it’s a hollow-eyed nightmare of an album, a dense, screaming tangle of tension and sweaty sheets. Underneath it all, there’s the ecstasy of the album’s title, but it’s tough to find. It’s actually tough to find anything in here; the production is so thick and dark that not much can escape.

Most people didn’t know what to do with this when it came out. Fans who’d loved Living With the Law were blinkered, certainly; radio PDs were completely unimpressed; and Sony was at a loss. Compare “Narcotic Prayer” (download) or “WPL” (download) with anything from Law, and it’s easy to see why.


Terra Incognita (1997)
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I never met or spoke with Chris Whitley, and I have no idea what went into the making of Terra Incognita, but to me, this is a clear case of a label giving an artist a direct order to record something — anything — more commercially viable than the last record, and the artist doing a half-assed job of following that order. Terra isn’t a bad album; it’s just that Whitley sounds a little lost. In terms of production, it’s neither fish nor flesh: Not as impenetrable as Din of Ecstasy, yet not as wide open as Living With the Law. It kinda-sorta follows the template he established with Law, but not really. Essentially, it’s the sound of an artist in transition; much of what’s heard will resurface on later albums, with greater confidence. And with better songs — Terra is, by and large, Whitley’s weakest collection of material, though “Weightless” (download) was a great single, and “Aerial” (download) is another high point.

About the only thing the fans could really take away from this album was the knowledge that following Whitley’s career wasn’t going to be easy — whether through necessity or choice, he would continually take leaps, whether or not his listeners wanted to (or could) keep up.


Dirt Floor (1998)
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Terra Incognita, not surprisingly, turned out to be Whitley’s swan song on Sony; he resurfaced less than a year later with the independently released Dirt Floor. Gone were the modern production flourishes of the previous album — in fact, gone was pretty much everything other than a guitar, a banjo, and Whitley’s foot stomping out the rhythm. The cynical response to this decision would be to say that neither Whitley nor the label likely had the budget to make a full band recording, but the truth is, it takes guts, and unswerving belief, to strip your songs so completely bare. There are no distractions here; nothing between Whitley, the song, and the listener. Given its brevity, Floor may have been intended as a stopgap between studio recordings, but ultimately, it’s one of his most compelling releases. Listen to the title track (download) and “Ball Peen Hammer” (download) to get a taste.


Live at Martyrs’ (2000)
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Though I’ve thus far framed Whitley’s work entirely in blues terms, I hope I’ve also made it clear that he approaches the blues on terms, and from angles, that are often nearly unrecognizable, even (or especially) to people who really love blues music. Live at Martyrs’, I think, illustrates this clearly. He’s got a real fondness for what the AMG calls “rhythmic amorphousness” — in other words, he likes to change time signatures within the song, sometimes more than once — and without a full band telegraphing these shifts, the effect can be wholly bewildering. It’s on this album, I think, that Whitley really comes into his own, managing to snip every conventional tether — melody, rhythm, traditional chord structure — without floating off into ponderous noise. “Living With the Law” (download) is a skewed look back at where he’s been; his cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” (download) offers a hint of where he was headed.


Rocket House (2001)
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Ten years after releasing his debut, Whitley returned to the major-label fold courtesy of Dave Matthews, who signed Whitley to his RCA-distributed ATO imprint. The result was Rocket House, an album that, like Living With the Law, managed to be both fresh and accessible. Through a seamless blend of his haunted blues with modern production touches like samples, programmed beats, and turntables, he managed to have his cake and eat it too, broadening and commercializing his sound without sacrificing integrity in the bargain. The first single, “Radar” (download), is a perfect example — you’ve got Bruce Hornsby on keyboards, Dave Matthews doing background vocals, and all manner of production gewgaws, but the song evokes the same sepia-toned vistas of all Whitley’s best work. The album is leagues removed from Law, yet every bit the career-defining tour de force. “Radar,” not to mention other great cuts like “Chain” (download), should have translated into greater success and exposure, but the album came and went without much of a ripple on the charts. Whitley’s association with ATO, however fruitful artistically, was destined to be brief.


Hotel Vast Horizon (2003)
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None of Chris Whitley’s albums are what you’d call cheerful, but Hotel Vast Horizon is darker than most. It sounds like the cover: A bleak, black & white landscape, all asphalt and snow beneath an endless, featureless sky. Whitley has spent a good part of his career shuttling between Europe and the United States, and it’s definitely colored his work; Horizon, recorded in Germany, is a literal blend between American and European perspectives on the blues — sort of like Robert Johnson jamming with Kraftwerk, only without the synthesizers. On the surface, it sounds similar to Dirt Floor, but repeated listens reveal that Whitley has broadened and reshuffled his palette; the melodies are more angular, slower to reveal themselves, and at times seem to be at odds with the songs themselves. Songs like “Breaking Your Fall” (download) and “Silhouette” (download) reveal a songwriter flexing his artistic muscles without showboating.


War Crime Blues (2004)
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After years of hopscotching between sounds, with War Crime Blues, Whitley seemed to have finally found what he was trying to find — for a time, anyway. It’s basically Dirt Floor plus Hotel Vast Horizon — intense, bare-bones, log-cabin blues. Having said that, it’s difficult to imagine what, say, Son House would make of this music; it’s just as easy to imagine him recognizing a kindred spirit as it is to see the old blues master not being able to follow along. Personally, I like to imagine the former scenario — though songs like “Made From Dirt” (download) and the cover of Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” (download) are twisted, ragged, dirty reproductions of the blues, Whitley’s still speaking the same language.


Weed (2004)
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Along with War Crime Blues, Whitley released Weed, a solo acoustic look back at his catalog. Given that the original versions of a lot of these songs weren’t exactly overproduced to begin with, this is a fun-but-not-essential collection, which is perhaps why it came out alongside War Crime. It has its revelatory moments, don’t get me wrong; the newer version of “Cool Wooden Crosses” (download), for one, is far superior to the one on Terra Incognita. For the most part, however, the album merely gives Whitley the chance to present his songs — Living With the Law‘s “I Forget You Every Day” (download), for instance — in a more confident, more experienced light.


Soft Dangerous Shores (2005)
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Longtime fans, upon hearing that Malcolm Burn was producing Whitley’s next record, no doubt wondered whether this signaled a return to the aural landscape of Living With the Law. It didn’t. Though Burn’s touch is plainly evident, and has a lot to do with this album’s overall sound, it doesn’t dominate the way it did on Whitley’s debut; moreover, his songs are now more surreal and less obviously melodic. The overall effect is sort of quietly harsh; it’s difficult to imagine a title for the album that would have been more appropriate than Soft Dangerous Shores. All the weapons he’d been honing all along — bare arrangements; wide open tunings; endless, dissonant droning; his hushed, creaky falsetto — combine with Burn’s vaguely menacing atmospherics to create a series of songs that manage to float and flutter even as they buzz with seething tension. It’s roots music without roots, for lack of a better description, and possibly the most full-bodied presentation of the alien blues from another galaxy that Whitley had been steadily working toward for the last decade.

There’s little in the way of immediate gratification here; it’s much too edgelessly trippy to attract a wide commercial audience. But as songs like “Her Furious Angels” (download) and “Fireroad (For Two)” (download) make clear, it’s the motion of the journey that drove him — not whether he had anybody else along for the ride.

Sadly, that ride ended abruptly not long after Shores was released. Chris Whitley passed away on November 20, 2005, ending his battle with lung cancer at home with his brother and daughter by his side.


Reiter In (2006)
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Whitley, so the story goes, received his terminal diagnosis and decided to round up some compadres for one last hurrah; the result was Reiter In, credited to Chris Whitley & the Bastard Club and released posthumously. You’d forgive — or expect — a certain amount of soft-focus sentimentality in most any other album released after an artist’s death, but you won’t hear any here. His music always had teeth; always had a menacing, seesawing gait. Reiter In is different, but only because here, you feel him planting his feet and firing away — this is a bloody-fanged motherfucker of an album.

Whitley and the Club kick things off with a cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (download), and that sets the tone for what is to follow, including a rumbling take on Willie Dixon’s “Bring It On Home” and an ungodly cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Mountainside.” Even out of context, it’s a satisfying listen; when you know what was going on behind the scenes, tracks like “All Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever” (download) are wrenching in the best possible way. It’s the kind of album that takes a piece of you with it when it ends.

Fortunately, there was more.


Dislocation Blues (2007)
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Dislocation Blues was the second release to receive billing as Chris Whitley’s final album; sadly, this time around, the designation would appear to be apt. Much as many of us would love for Whitley to continue rising from the grave, like Tupac with a National guitar, this set of recordings – committed to tape with Whitley’s sometime touring partner, Australian roots musician Jeff Lang, months before Whitley’s death – would seem to be the end of the line in terms of fully realized studio albums.

But what a way to go. As we’ve seen, Whitley spent his career dragging a bootheel back and forth across the line in the dirt between traditional and modern, natural and synthetic, clatter and sigh; it was hard work, and for listeners who saw his recordings as destinations rather than steps on a journey, it was often confounding. For every stark, acoustic release (such as 1991’s Living with the Law, or 1998’s Dirt Floor), Whitley had a feedback-braced response (such as 1995’s Din of Ecstasy). In keeping with this tradition, then, Dislocation Blues serves, loosely speaking, as a gentler companion piece to the thorny, squall-drenched Reiter In.

This is still Chris Whitley we’re talking about, of course, which is why it’s only telling part of the story to say that Whitley and Lang cover “Stagger Lee” (download), “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (download) and Prince’s “Forever in My Life” on this set; anyone who grew up with Professor Longhair’s version of “Stagger Lee,” for instance, will be hard-pressed to identify it here. Whitley and Lang take the popular piano boogie, flay it alive, and leave its skin twitching in the breeze, exposing it for the awful, bloody revenge tale it’s always been.

This sort of dismantling and reduction sets the tone for all of Dislocation Blues; Whitley and Lang strip covers, old originals, and new collaborations down to their most essential bits, run them through a rusty old blender, and repeat. It’s intoxicating, and Lang deserves much of the credit for this. On his own, Whitley was apt to spend a lot of time doodling in the margins of melody and song structure; here, however, Lang acts as a tether and a foil, providing Whitley with a response to his ghostly call.

Bassist Grant Cummerford and drummer Ashley Davies deserve special notice – they provide Whitley and Lang with a perfectly supple, earthy anchor, and Lang’s production is appropriately filthy. Whitley’s death remains a profound and untimely loss, but if we must have an epitaph, Dislocation Blues is as good as any.