Request
May, 1998
by David Sprague


Chris Whitley
Dirt Floor (Messenger)

The blues -- despite the assertions of flashy players armed with the aural
equivalent of shiny pieces of foil to distract the masses -- has nothing to
do with technique.  It's all about guts: the wrenching pain in 'em and the
need to spill that bile in front of anyone who'll listen.

What the little boys don't know, Chris Whitley understands.  Even though he
doesn't play pure blues per se, he knows that in order to maximize the
impact of his blindingly vivid songs, everything that can be removed from
the path that leads from his gut to the listener's should be trashed.  On
Dirt Floor, his first release since ending a less-than-fruitful major-label
stint, the pruning makes for a stark landscape indeed.

Thanks in part to his judicious use of primitive wire-spool recording
technology that one-ups today's so-called lo-fi purists, Whitley wrings
every last shred of viscera from these unsparing allegories.  The
field-recording flavor is intensified by the Houston expatriate's slithery,
yet jarringly simple guitar playing, a style that often settles into a
dreamstate drone reminiscent of elder statesmen R.L. Burnside and the late
Junior Kimbrough.

It's not Whitley's way to blind you with science.  He'd rather sidle up to
you and open your eyes by whispering a few simple lines that will hang in
your subconscious for the long run, whether they be couched in credible
skid-row dispatches such as "Scrapyard Lullaby" or shattered past-life
regressions like "Loco Girl."  Dirt Floor is rife with such moments that,
while fleeting, are sure to stain indelibly.