Dallas Observer
Robert Wilonsky

"Chris Whitley: Abiding by 'the Law' again"
	


The fans are fanatics, spinning tall tales and hanging on every note and in-between silence until the next record; seems nothing inspires romantic devotion more than a bluesman who offers his own "Narcotic Prayer" before he lays thee down and goes to sleep. A handful of critics even insist that Chris Whitley's the kind of guy who, like Robert Johnson before him, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads; but instead of ability, he just came up holding nothing more than a worthless piece of paper from Sony Music - his is just a modern variation on the well-worn clich. Maybe there is a certain romanticism inherent to his tale - the boy was born in Texas, raised in Mexico and Vermont, taught himself how to play the guitar, and performed on the streets of Manhattan and Brussels before releasing his 1991 debut on a major label - but no musician can live up to such hype unless he kills himself or dies a tragic, before-his-time death. Hell, had Jeff Buckley not gone for that late-night swim and got tangled up in the undercurrent, he might well have become another footnote instead of a martyr. Whitley's fanatics, who point to him as something of a cross between Kurt Cobain and Howlin' Wolf, like to think he, too, suffers for his art; they point to his 1995 album Din of Ecstasy and its 1997 follow-up Terra Incognita and insist his avant-blues are carved out of diamond-hard passion, a sadness so potent and tangible, it's all but impenetrable. They point to the gaunt, pale figure on the cover of the recently released Dirt Floor and assert that his is a body slowly being worn down by the music he plays, this melancholy brand of acoustic blues that drips with crucifixion imagery and dead-dog-on-the-side-of-the-road fatalism. They listen to his voice - neither from the heart nor from the gut, neither sweet nor sullen, neither white nor black - and drown in its somber hues. More to the point, they obsess over his 1991 debut Living with the Law - the music made when a Hendrix-Winter zealot strips away the electricity, crawls inside a beat-to- shit-beautiful National guitar, then howls until he's hoarse - and crave more of the same.

Dirt Floor, released on a tiny label run by a 24-year-old kid out of his New York apartment, is the answer to their prayers; it's the sound made when a man is dropped from his label and then goes chasing ghosts around his daddy's abandoned farmhouse in Vermont. Recorded in one hour, or so the legend goes, the record is full of scrap-yard lullabies and songs about loco girls in the wild country, and it wears its attitude like a beer-stained tank top as it travels from one island to another (pick out the song titles in that sentence, and win yourself five cents). It's a good record, a creepy record, a vaguely uplifting record in a wretched sort of way, and a good record for a man to tour behind, as he doesn't need anyone to play it but himself. And it doesn't sound like the blues, but you know it is anyway.