Two reviews: Chris Whitley Soft Dangerous Shores

Chris Whitley, 1960-2005


Chris Whitley died Sunday, November 20, 2005, from lung cancer. Our condolences to all his friends and family - and our hearts in melancholy.

In 1991, Chris Whitley released his first CD, Living with the Law, with a splash that very few heard. I was quite young when it came out, and it was a revelation. Having weaned myself on blues records stolen from my father, but still being very much a child of the 80s, his amazing fusion of visceral blues, crunchy industrial backings, and layered lyrics made me think again about the places that music could go. But then, Whitley dropped off the face of the earth for four years.

1995 saw the release of his second CD, Din of Ecstasy, and I must say, after being made to wait for so long, I ran to my local purveyor of fine music to pick it up. And I was thrown for a loop. Unlike his first CD, Whitley's second was a crunchy, guitar-driven work that was more in line with German industrial than Muddy Waters. It not only gave me pause as to where he was going, it was also the death of his fledgling mainstream career.

With that CD, he became known as a musician who was interested only in following his own muse, an interest which was not conducive to his making it big. Yet at the same time, it was an interest that would make him one of the most unique songwriters of this age.

His third CD, Terra Incognita, found him looking for the middle ground between his first and second CDs. Songs such as "Immortal Blues" and "Alien" possessed the familiar feel of the songs from his first CD, while songs such as "Clear Blue Sky" provided a gentler window into the new directions he had started in. Going back to that second, initially off-putting CD, I found that it was just as good as his other efforts. I was a fan.

A string of releases had him going back to his roots, covering classic songs, and even working the most modern forms into his work. Some were hits, and some were misses, and with the release of Soft Dangerous Shores, Whitley finds a perfect amalgam of all his desires. Here he finds the delicate balance of the acoustic, blues-influenced work of his first CD, the modern sounds which influenced several of his follow-up records, and his always unique songwriting. Lines such as "Been abused but the medicine make it alright / Sustain your heart, protect your light" have the feel of any popular modern novel and are played perfectly against a backdrop of steel guitar and man-made beats, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The music of Chris Whitley is easy to wax poetic and pretentious about, but in the end it is much simpler than that. Ultimately, he strives to create music that strikes the heart first and the head second. While always difficult to say that everything he has done will be everybody's cup of tea, any music lover would be well served to check out Soft Dangerous Shores if only to experience the breadth of a truly innovative musician.

- Alex Duke

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Chris Whitley is a highly prolific artist who has released a dozen albums over the course of about as many years (fourteen, to be exact) without the general public really noticing. His career is varied, his music ever-changing, but the core elements have stayed the same: his breathy falsetto voice and intricate guitar playing. Whitley's music is of a rare kind. Deeply rooted in folk and blues, at times infused with 1980s German electronic music, his songs engage the listener with melodies that often are a journey rather than merely a song. Add to this his visual, impressionistic, associative lyrics and you might realize why Whitley is not for everyone. Nonetheless, he is a great song craftsman, and when he doesn't experiment with dance beats or heavily distorted fuzz rock, he writes some of the most beautiful songs you will never have heard.

Whitley's debut album, Living with the Law, introduced his signature National steel guitar, establishing a sound that, despite Daniel Lanois's reverb-heavy production, became the sound most of his career would revolve around. It is the guitar featured on nearly all of his albums, and the one he invariably takes with him on the road. Although modestly successful, the problem with Living with the Law was that it failed to bring together two conflicting worlds: that of Whitley's soaked-in-blues songwriting and Lanois's radio-ready pop production. The follow-up, 1995's Din of Ecstasy, saw Whitley go his own way, resulting in an album that, to this day, is hard to like. It is distortion from beginning till end, the melodies all but buried underneath a layer of noise. Third time around, he got it right: he found the perfect balance between following his vision and making his music accessible to others. 1997's Terra Incognita, despite a few minor missteps, is a near perfect album. That year, however, Whitley was dropped by his label. Whatever the reason, seven years into his career it was clear that Whitley was not a money-making machine.

In December of '97, Whitley took a handful of new songs, set up a recorder in a relative's store in Vermont, and in one afternoon recorded what would later become Dirt Floor. Showcasing Whitley all by himself on guitar and banjo, accompanied by his ominous foot stomping, the album might well be his finest work to date. It was picked up by a small, independent label that would house him for the next three years. The subsequent years, however, were less productive and saw only the release of a live album and a collection of covers. In 2001, Whitley released an album on ATO (with ATO headman Dave Matthews singing backup vocals on one track). A new label required a new direction musically, and Rocket House, therefore, is an anomaly in Whitley's catalogue: it is a record on which he experiments with dance beats, drum computers, sampled loops. On tour that year, he was backed by a DJ. Although more successful than Living with the Law in terms of musical crossover, it was a slightly disappointing album after the brilliance of Dirt Floor and the ensuing long wait (a four-year hiatus is a long wait in Whitley's career). Setting up residence in Germany and returning to his former label, he released Hotel Vast Horizon in 2003, an album of subdued songs. The sparse arrangements on this album put Whitley's songwriting in the limelight again, and the result was generally thrilling. His new home certainly ignited something inside him, because that year, he re-recorded sixteen tracks from the albums he had released so far, in addition to a new album. Both- Weed and War Crime Blues - were released a year later. They seemed to mark an end-point. The question now was what Whitley would do, where he would go from here.

His new album is entitled Soft Dangerous Shores. Sonically, it is the direct follow-up to Rocket House. From the beginning notes it is clear, however, that Shores is more than an experiment. The inlay shows pictures of Dresden, and unavoidably, the first track revisits the horrors of the bombing of that city during World War II. The lyrics are chilling: "In Newtown today a virus confirmed / fairgrounds revoked pleasure gardens upturned / and the prayer complied and dropped where it burned / no one was spared and nothing was learned." Whitley was once called an urbane poet, and in a sense he is. His folk and blues is no longer that of muddy back roads and poorly lit bars - although those bars is where he still performs - but of life in the city, of disorientation and loneliness, of searching for a bond with someone else, more often than not a lover. In "City of Women," a dark, brooding piece that takes its time to establish a very delicate melody, Whitley plays with erotic imagery ("Everywhere I go is wet and red"). But like on the rest of the album, there is a sense of despair to the song. The relationship examined is not one of mere sexuality, it is an intricate symbiosis, fragile and demanding, oftentimes devastating.

Lyrically, Soft Dangerous Shores is stunning. Sometimes ghostly and Biblical ("White hoofs be rising from the sand / wild blood be passed from heart to hand / the weed will fly the cloud will land"), at other times exploring ("How long I be chased / 'fore the earth take me in / from the valley I taste / whole futures on her skin"), the album stands as a fine study of (sexual) love. Musically, however, the album does not match its lyrical content. The problem is not the melodies so much as the production. Whitley's guitar playing has been pushed to the background and the way has been made for electronics and sonic adventures. The melodies, already fairly complex, are all but lost to layers of drumbeats, drones, and reverb. Some songs hold their own despite the harangue of sounds, most notably the aforementioned opening track, "Fireroad," and closer "Breath of Shadows." Yet, most songs suffer from the fact that there is too much going on at the same time. If Whitley had chosen to pare the music down, to keep it bare, room would have opened up for his voice to step forward and for his lyrics to have their full effect. Instead, he has opted to create a mood piece. Mood is what this album is all about, and in that respect, it succeeds.

As it stands, Shores is hard to swallow whole. It is a demanding listen and one of the least accessible albums of Whitley's career. Yet, you can enjoy it for its impressive lyrics. And if you take the time to disentangle the melodies from the production, you'll find some jewels hiding underneath.

- Deniz Kuypers