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.