Enigmatic singer/songwriter Chris Whitley has weighed in with not one but two new albums, both stripped-down solo efforts showcasing him accompanied only by his guitar and a stomp board. Both are available only at shows and via his label’s web site.
Weeds features acoustic recordings of material from Whitley’s previously issued catalog. It’s revelatory, primarily because it captures the depth and breadth of Whitley’s songwriting. When Living With the Law was issued, fans identified with the record’s sound as well as its material. Over a decade later, the songs, naked and alone, continue to haunt with their spectral power and desert-blues ethos. Alternately, selections from Din of Ecstasy, Terra Incognita and Rocket House can be re-evaluated as the work of a master songwriter. Apart from their overdriven beat consciousness and razored guitar scree, they come off as vulnerable, yet still insistent and lyrically sophisticated. They’re anchored to American roots music despite their rhythmic adventurousness.
War Crime Blues features eight new cuts and three covers. There’s Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” The Clash’s “The Call Up” from Sandinista and the jazz standard “Nature Boy.” If any lingering doubts existed as to Whitley’s abilities—as either a brilliant and original songwriter, or as a bona fide American bluesman in the tradition handed down from the American South—this disc should eliminate them. “Invisible Day” bears haunted witness to ghosts, evil and loss-saturated shadows (having been recorded under a bridge in Dresden), bemoaning those left alive as lost and those who’ve returned from “victorious” conquests as full of emptiness and grief.
The smoking crunch and stomp of “God Left Town” showcases Whitley’s awesome bottleneck pyrotechnics. His rhythmic command of his instrument and bleeding lyrics fuse in an assault on all that is mediocre or clichéd in postmodern interpretations of the blues. Tunes like “White Rider,” “Ghost Dance,” “Her Furious Angels” and “Dead Cowboy Song” don’t interpret the blues so much as revise them as a living, dangerous, fire-breathing tradition. Whitley’s cover of Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” is ragged, switchblade rock done on distorted solo acoustic guitar with organic foot-stomping percussion that shudders through the speakers.
The set ends on a haunting note with an a cappella rendition of “Nature Boy,” and Whitley surprises us again, this time as an effective, nuanced, interpretive ballad singer. Whitley is a bluesman, pure and simple, and the evidence lies in his songs. To fans, these two offerings will come as welcome new directions. For others who have never heard Whitley, they will embody the sound of rough-and-tumble Americana, unapologetic and powerfully seductive lyrically, musically and emotionally.