[22 February 2005]
Occupations I thought might befit William Elliott Whitmore upon hearing his voice: paper towel mascot, line cook at the best diner you ever did visit on the way to Carson City, and Bob Seger. That should paint you a close enough picture. Or I could tell you how surprised I was to see a publicity shot of Whitmore and discover that he was not a 60-year-old man. He was, however, standing in a cornfield, tattooed and possessing a certain rugged, salt-of-the-earth aura that made absolute sense with the songs on his second album, Ashes to Dust. Not one second into the first song, “Midnight”, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about, a throaty holler that begs to be described with the same vernacular used in the lyrics. We’re talkin’ crows, whiskey, and hard times, all of which are fine by me. There’s just one thing lacking on this album, and it’s a big one: variation.
A close and trusted friend of mine had me listen to Whitmore’s first album, Hymns for the Hopeless, and I had a similar problem back then. Arresting vocals, well-recorded, zero gimmicks, but damn if I can tell one song from the next. Or even verse from verse. That the second record continues in the exact same vein is dismaying. Old dogs and new tricks? I’ve heard it can’t be done. But a young dog? New tricks! New tricks! I don’t want anything drastic here. But a melody can have more than three notes on occasion. And a song can have more than one melodic line. Take “The Day the End Finally Came” as an example. It establishes itself strongly and immediately with barnyard clucking banjo and a strident blues vocal melody. Then it hammers that melody into the ground for four minutes. It ends the way it begins, and so for all the world-weariness pent up in the words and vocal chords, the song itself takes you nowhere.
“When Push Comes to Love” is somewhat of an improvement. It’s a love/relationship song, so someone’s got someone’s heart in their hands, et cetera. There’s a nice allusion to the Star Spangled Banner worked into it. But what’s really promising is that Whitmore manages ever so slightly to project a different tone in his delivery to fit the material. Warmth, loneliness, regret, acceptance, nostalgia—all of these find expression and release over the course of the song, helped along by the infusion of droning feedback and a chiming bell-like solo. He still walks the narrow path of melody, but the other elements of the song step forward to keep things interesting. Likewise, the slide guitar on “Lift My Jug (Song For Hub Cale)” makes it a standout. Dynamic and enervating, the song is the best Ashes to Dust has to offer, channeling the raw spirit of the Mississippi blues tradition and using Whitmore’s blue-collar growl to its best effect. It tires you out because of its inherent energy, not because you’re numbed by repetition. Think of the way your arm might feel after playing nine innings of baseball, rather than bouncing a tennis ball off your bedroom wall for 45 minutes.
I find much to admire about Ashes to Dust, and Whitmore’s straight-forward aesthetic. Unfortunately that doesn’t transfer over to prolonged listening enjoyment. More than two or three songs at a time can be too much. But as William Elliott is not a 60-year-old man, there is plenty of time for the odd spark and nuance heard here to go forth and multiply in to a full set of songs you’ll want to hold dear.