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.