When he died of lung cancer in 2005, Chris Whitley left behind a most peculiar career.
His 1991 debut album "Living with the Law" combined Whitley's esoteric lyricism with a moody blues/rock sound and was both a critical and, for a blues artist at the wake grunge's mainstream invasion, commercial success, and seemingly left Whitley poised to be the preeminent blues revivalist of the 1990s. A mere six years later however, Whitley found himself without a record deal, and floundering in obscurity after his two follow up albums, the highly experimental, noise-rock influenced "Din of Ecstasy" and "Terra Incognita" failed to perform commercially. Sony didn't know what to do with the constantly genre shifting artist, and Whitley was dropped from the label. Many gifted artists spend their entire careers never achieving the mainstream success that they may deserve, but Chris Whitley seemed to actively run from it. Unsurprisingly, in 1997 Whitley went to an independent label, and over the course of one day, in the middle of winter in a Vermont barn, he recorded "Dirt Floor", an album which displays a songwriter and musician at the top of his game, but at the bottom of his career.
The title of the album tellingly implies an earthy minimalism, as the only instruments on the entire record are Whitley's voice, his National resonator guitar, a banjo, and the sound of his foot, acting as percussion. On this album, Whitley embraced the blues more enthusiastically on this record than any other in his repertoire. Drawing on the Delta artists which helped form much of the sound of his first album, Whitley creates a bleak, moody, and intimate listening experience.
Chris Whitley was always a highly idiosyncratic guitarist, and no more so than on this album. Because of the stripped nature of the arrangements on this album, Whitley conjures up fantastically intricate parts which always serve the song, such as on the haunting "Scrapyard Lullabies" . The resonator guitar is a peculiar instrument, and it requires a fine hand to wrangle properly, and Chris Whitley handles the dynamics of the instrument on this album better than any other he ever recorded. The harsh, metallic tone matches almost perfectly with the austere nature of the songs. As a banjo player on "Ballpeen Hammer", he is basic, yet effective, creating a driving rhythm which propels the most aggressive song on the album.
As a singer, Chris Whitley possesses a voice which convincingly conveys the world-weary feeling that accompanies the lyrics and music. Over the course of the album, Whitley's vocals oscillate between an almost spoken drawl, as on the banjo driven "Ballpeen Hammer", to a pained howl, as heard on the album's title track . Chris Whitley was a highly cryptic songwriter, abandoning the worldly, working-class-warrior nature of the classic blues artists and focussing on intensely personal, metaphoric songwriting, which, at times, borders on the deliberately obtuse. Lyrics such as "like a walking translation on a street of lies" are a common find in all of Chris Whitley's music. To Whitley, coherency was second to atmosphere, and his lyrics are reflective of mood more than any kind of straightforward conveyance of concrete ideas. One unfortunate constant often found in artists who died early is an awareness of their own diminishing hourglass, and death appears as a prominent theme on "Dirt Floor", with the title track contemplating the soil as a bed, or on "Wild Country" in which Whitley talks about "returning to the wild". The video for "Wild Country", in retrospect tragically, features his daughter Trixie, watching her father sing about his own mortality.
Despite the bare-bones instrumentation, Whitley manages to conjure up a serviceable amount of diversity amongst the songs. "Altitude", finds Whitley attacking his resonator with gusto, nearly blowing out the mic. Conversely, on songs such as "From one Island to Another", Whitley almost seems to whisper as he delivers the song's contemplative lyrics, forming one of the few spots of sweetness on an album which mostly deals in existential dread. However, the songs do tend to sound very similar after a while, which is the album's largest drawback. Despite the talented musician that he was, Whitley can only do so much to make the songs distinguishable, and he seemed to be aware of this, as all of the songs are under four minutes, and the album, in total, runs just under half an hour, its brevity being one of its saving graces.
"Dirt Floor" is not Chris Whitley's best album(In my view "Living with the Law" remains his most completely realized work), but it is one of his most peculiar records in a peculiar career. Here, we find a songwriter at his most stripped, most desperate, and most existential.
Note: There is currently a documentary being put together about Chris Whitley titled "Dust Radio", the trailer for which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rih0Ug8TotQ
Last edited by The_Pilgrim_33 at Sep 2, 2012,
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