by Bliss Bowen
CHRIS WHITLEY Live At Martyrs' Chris Whitley's songs are original collages of sinew and soul Ñ stream-of-consciousness lyrical impressions and evocative sounds, as opposed to neat, linear constructs. They're not for everyone. They insist on being felt as much as heard. Their lingering effect is one of provocative mystery, pulsing with combustible emotion. That, combined with Whitley's taste for unexpected guitar tunings makes a live performance the ideal environment in which to experience his music. Recorded at a club in Chicago, Live at Martyrs' 15 tracks include two new songs, "Firefighter" and "Serve You." The latter's lyrics ("Now the moon will rise/ On your naked faith/ Cause a wave to break/ Where you bathe") are typical of Whitley's crystalizing mix of symbolism and questioning spirituality. His voice uses melody as an emotional springboard. Musically, he's moved from atmospheric, rootsy blues-rock to grunge to artful noise and back toward raw-boned blues again, but on Live, he fuses those sonic elements to support the mercurial feel of the music. His voice, by turns spectral and fierce, uses melody as an emotional springboard. "Home Is Where You Get Across", which he sends out to his daughter Trixie, is one of the album's exciting highlights, as the audience cheers approval of Whitley's spirited slide guitar playing. Often praised for the ferocity of his attack, he also executes some nimble fingerwork on "Long Way Around," "New Machine" and the hungrily wailed "Living With the Law". Background club buzz tumbles over the edges of "From One Island to Another," his ruminative Dirt Floor rebuke to philosopher John Donne's 16th-century axiom (no man is an island). The intermittently detected snatches of conversation ironically underscore the meaning of the alienated lyrics as well as the intimacy of the club Ñ and Whitley's music.