Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chris Whitley

One of my favorite acts of self-indulgence is to head up to Princeton Record Exchange and graze the trash wall i.e. all the $1.99 titles. It's seldom I don't grab a handful of stuff that's pretty damned cool and often enough I find things I've REALLY wanted and never picked up before. Sometimes I find things I didn't know exist but am intrigued by and fall in love with.

A couple weeks ago I was grazing and it was clear that a particular person's collection was dispersed into the stacks -- I found a whole pile of mint conditions releases by one Chris Whitley. I'm guessing y'all know this guy all too well and, as usual, I'm years behind the long as I keep busy with SOME great music while I'm missing out on OTHER great music I'm cool with that. Ya know there's always something wonderful to discover and since I find so few critical voices I trust I'm happy exploring at my own pace.

I actually worked at Columbia Records when his first album came out. Seemed pleasant enough -- earnest, gruff voiced singer/songwriter with good chops on guitar. That debut was produced by the then hot Malcom Burn who'd been Daniel Lanois' chief engineer and then moved out on his own. The effort was pleasant, but a little predictable and kinda mersh.

I got dragooned into a co. dinner with Whitley and wound up sitting with him. Even at that point he seemed uncomfortable with the position the label was putting him in and seemed to me that he'd be happier being a bit more underground and working with folks with a more counter-cultural sensibility. Honestly, I think a LOT of artists would be happier if they were teamed with folks in actual harmony with their artistic/philosophical perspective...but that don't happen 'cause label people need to LIE about their feelings in order to keep their jobs. Everything put before them by their superiors is proclaimed "AMAZING" whatever their true feelings are. I suspect that a lot of acts of artistic willfulness could be avoided if the talent were happy with their workmates and not feeling like they had to rebel against the system. But Whitley was not so lucky and made a wonderfully petulant album called "Din Of Ecstasy" which effectively ended his career at Columbia. Great album tho -- coulda been the launch pad to introduce him to an entirely different audience. But the label just viewed this as him abandoning the audience they'd already pre-ordained for him.

ANYWAY...over the years I noted the adulatory reviews his subsequent releases on a series of different labels got. Not trusting critics tho I was not moved to run out and pick 'em up at the time.

So here's this stack of 4 Whitley titles, $1.99 each -- grabbed em all.

Next day I filled up the changer and...lotta nice stuff. Great singing, powerful songs, gutsy guitar work overall. One of these was solo acoustic -- good morning music. Two were able enough efforts with full instrumentation. And then there was
"Hotel Vast Horizon." Basically this has all the positive elements of the others BUT is performed by a brilliant trio featuring a bass player that chords his way through most of the songs. So everything has a deep, sad undertow, a foot-dragging rhythm that compliments Whitley's high lonesome moaning vocalese, cross-cutting guitar lines and bluesy writing perfectly. For some reason it occurs to me that if Nirvana had been treated right after "Nevermind" and got to work with T-Bone Burnette on "In Utero" it'd've sounded like this. This is a KILLER Record.