This whole creative thing. What a headache! You find yourself talented at something, and if you have the drive to make yourself better, you hone your skills until they’re, at the very least, presentable to the general public. All the while, you’re surrounded by people who do it better than you, or people who just don’t care, and yet you still hammer away at the rough edges of your style. If you get to the point where you actually get your work accepted in a conventional sense—by publication, by a gallery showing, by a record contract, etc.—you still can’t relax because the public just might not be into what you’re selling. Or you could still be unsatisfied within because your meager skills don’t match the grand visions bubbling in your brain. Who wants that kind of stress?
Well, lots of people, and Jim White is apparently one of them. As opposed to the general inconveniences that we often let pull us off course, White nearly lost his fretting hand in an industrial accident years ago. In a surprising bit of silver-lining optimism, though, White claims that getting his hand mangled made him a better guitar player since he could no longer get “chord happy”.
As a testament, White’s recorded output has definitely been more concerned with mood than flash. White certainly has a host of experiences to draw from (fashion model, surfer, taxi driver, child in a Pentecostal family, etc.), but he also possesses a verbal dexterity that skews his lyrics as if they’ve just been channeled through a prism. On his past records, songs like “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados” and “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi” certainly captured their settings in sharp detail, but also conveyed a sense of something larger and just out of reach.
Drill a Hole is no different. Straight off the bat, “Static on the Radio” weaves White’s plainspoken lyrics of bittersweet nighttime scenes with Aimee Mann’s more enigmatic stanzas like “it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the damned” and “not praying for a miracle, I’m just down on my knees”. In “Bluebird”, he sings that “behind fourteen doors a sad parade of paramours / Are throwing little white rocks at sorrow’s window pane”. So right away, you can tell that White’s pursuing pretty much the same evocative path as on his previous records. This time, though, he seems to gain real inspiration from co-conspirators like Mann, Oh Susanna, Bill Frisell, Mary Gauthier, the Sadies, and Joe Henry.
As one of the album’s producers, Henry’s stamp on Drill a Hole is huge. Anyone familiar with Henry’s own albums knows the spooky, jazzy, lush sound that he’s developed for himself. Here, he offers that sound wholesale to White, who runs with it to craft some truly compelling songs. White’s Henry-produced songs engage on every level: the lyrics, the leisurely pace, the quirky twitches in the background. It’s as if there are radios in the background of each song playing a Jim White from an alternate universe, and if you listen closely enough, you can hear the same song, only radically different.
White hasn’t completely ditched the Southern Gothic tag, though. The two songs that he produced on his own, “Borrowed Wings” and “Phone Booth in Heaven” are twangier, more wobbly. “Borrowed Wings” rides a menacing banjo melody (with shadowy backing vocals by Oh Susanna and an overall vibe worthy of Mule Variations Tom Waits), while “Phone Booth in Heaven” rests on the sounds of passing traffic, birds, thunder, and miscellaneous creaking before White eases in on a delicate acoustic melody, singing “the blueprint for sorrow is just to put off the hurt / ‘Til the price of tomorrow becomes more than love’s worth”. Both of those songs go for a different feel, but they feel like natural extensions (or roots) of the Henry-inspired sound that dominates the record.
The only song that feels like an odd fit is “Alabama Chrome”, helmed by Barenaked Ladies. Despite a promising start, in which White recites a litany of day-by-day deterioration and miscellaneous semantic arguments, a too-slick chorus threatens to bring the whole thing apart. And then a pitter-patter vocal breach into the song by the Ladies themselves does derail it beyond repair. “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home” doesn’t quite work, either, but at least it’s in keeping with Jim White tradition.
That one lapse aside, Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See is a remarkably consistent album. True, a few songs recede into the background even while you’re listening to them, but every Jim White record has a few of those. But White seems to have turned a corner, taking his songs to places they haven’t gone before. From a listener’s standpoint, it sure sounds like all that adversity and hard work are starting to pay off.