The Boston Phoenix
Moody blues Chris Whitley's scrapyard lullabies
by Matt Ashare
The voice on the other end of the line is barely audible. It's stronger than a whisper, yet still it's nearly drowned out by nothing more than the background noise emanating from a nearbyhighway. You can ask Chris Whitley to speak up -- I did -- but it doesn't make any difference: his is a voice that just isn't cut out for casual conversation, just as his thin frame often appears a bit too fragile to hold up under the weight of the Earth's atmosphere. But put a guitar in his scrawny arms and he's tenacious, indomitable, his voice rich and resonant even as it rises into falsetto -- not that he ever really seems to be of this world. Whitley, who's speaking from a pay phone in Colorado on a tour that brings him to the Mama Kin Music Hall this Tuesday, has never quite fit in to any of the tidy little marketing packages the music business tends to rely on. His instrument of choice -- a '31 National steel guitar, often played with a slide -- would seem to mark him as a bluesman, and there's quite of bit of the blues running through his music. But his songwriting doesn't conform to the unstated rules of most of what gets called the blues: no walking-bass lines, only the occasional 12-bar structure, little reliance on traditional 1-4-5 progressions. The rootsy balladry that dominated Whitley's Sony debut -- 1991's Living with the Law (Columbia) -- would seem to have placed him in the sensitive-singer/songwriter category, under the subheading Americana. But there was something almost too dark and prickly about his songs, a soul-deep uneasy quality that wasn't exactly up the same alley folks like John Hiatt populate -- I've always heard strong hints of Whitley in Kurt Cobain's performance on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC). As if to prove that point, Whitley followed up Living with the Law by plugging his dobro into a Marshall stack and drenching the wrenching, riff-heavy Din of Ecstasy (Columbia, 1995) in black sheets of distortion and howling feedback -- it was Robert Johnson filtered through Led Zeppelin and Sonic Youth. Sony kept Whitley on for one more, last year's dark and doleful Terra Incognita (Work Group), before cutting its losses, a decision even Whitley himself thinks was fair. "My bill just got too big for Sony to deal with. They didn't particularly want to let me go, but they couldn't justify keeping me around. And I can't really complain because Sony did a good job of exposing me and my music to a lot of people." Enough of those people liked what they heard for Whitley to secure what amounts to a loyal cult following. And it was with that in mind that he decided to record and release his next album on his own, a plan that led to producer Craig Street (k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson) joining him at a little barn in Vermont for a two-day session last December. "I've played solo over the years more than anything, so it's really more natural for me to play that way than with a band, "Whitley admits. "And I just needed to make a record quickly to encourage myself to write. I wanted and needed to write." The rough-hewn result, Dirt Floor, was eventually released by the NYC-based indie label Messenger last month. Whitley's naked voice, his skeletal guitar chordings, and the distant timekeeping thump of his boot on the floor were all recorded by one stereo ribbon microphone with a two-track tape machine -- "the way they used to make records, even people like Miles Davis and sh*t," is how he puts it. If, as he hints, he was having any trouble writing new material, there's no indication of that on the disc. "Scrapyard Lullaby," the first track, is an unpretentiously poetic rumination about finding hope amid broken dreams: "I'm a walking translation on a street of lies/Singing these scrapyard lullabies," he sings over a jagged couple of muted chords, "searching through the prizes others throw away." On the hopeful "Accordingly"he imagines "businessmen like babes lay sleeping on the lawn," "cops standing naked breaking into song," and himself learning to trust another person enough to fall in love. And the hymnlike title track is sung from the perspective of someone who can't quite find his place in the world but hasn't given up hope. Which isn't a bad description of Whitley's own position. "It takes a certain kind of person to handle the creative pressure of trying to write a song that can get on the radio," he reflects. "And I think I would rather try to rise to that pressure than just trying to avoid it altogether, which is what I'm doing right now. Even though I don't really like the word, I guess I still consider myself . . . " -- and I think I heard him say "pop." But there's really no way to be sure. Chris Whitley plays a show with Michelle Malone this Tuesday, April 21, at the Mama Kin Music Hall. Call 931-2000 for tickets and 536-2100 for information.