There’s nothing quite like the visceral sensation of being in a small room with an acoustic musician. Neither an album nor a live staged show can do justice to the immediate sound of the instrument; both formats utilize microphones, which obstruct and/or enhance the sound wave before it reaches the ears. The dichotomy of intention and reception is wider than we acknowledge it to be, perhaps because we never pause to think of it so analytically. In other words, rarely are we afforded the opportunity for close-range absorption of sounds, and rarely do we contemplate this lack of opportunity.
But sometimes we hear something that triggers a reminiscence of sounds unscathed. War Crime Blues, one of two new releases from 21st Century nomadic bluesman Chris Whitley (Weed is the other; both were previously available only at live shows and online), is a record that defies subconscious acceptances of sound by shrouding itself in close proximity. Recorded in a Dresden studio, beneath Dresden’s Albert Bridge, and a Parisian hotel room, War Crime Blues’ most striking prospect is its presence. Whitley’s assured, penetrating performance hits you from the first strum; miraculously, you’re right there next to him, microphones and other technical obstructions be damned.
Whitley both asserts complete control over his guitars and turbulently usurps them, like little hand seizures that treat the steel strings as if they were elastic. The ominous opener “Made from Dirt” is an authoritative example of the record’s backbone of aggressive soul. Whitley chops at the fretboard as if his intention is to derail the train from its tracks. In “Dead Cowboy Song”, Whitley’s fingers move like a trained contortionist, evolving into a dark underbelly of Leo Kottke’s sprightly sponginess. The stoic “Her Furious Angels” is softer fare, with guitar as unobtrusive accompanist to Whitley’s fogged-up falsetto reaches. He is not an impersonator or an imposter; instead, Whitley lives in these songs and in the moment, the supreme example of artist as raw expressive machine.
True to its title, War Crime Blues has a resonant political consciousness. Whitley turns in a brooding, patient rendition of the Clash’s anti-enlistment anthem “The Call Up”. Whitley’s version is more about reasoning with impressionable minds rather than scaring up a revolution. While politics weigh heavy on Whitley’s mind (and really, this year they’ve graced the agenda of many an album), War Crime Blues is a significant work more for its performances than its picketing. Whitley’s execution is continually moving, oscillating with pulpy emotion and powered by fresh sensations. It’s all about how these songs are sculpted and magnetized, and less about how they dissent.
Whitley belongs to the popularly extinct traditional blues idiom; if you’ve seen the film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, you’ll understand when I say that most contemporary blues music begrudgingly follows the Blueshammer ethos. But Whitley doesn’t play the game of slick posturing and exploitation. His music is like a ghost echo of pre-World War II blues, refracted through punk and pulled back again through time to when it was pure (is there anyone else playing music like this nowadays?). Whitley stakes his claim in a genre’s legacy by skewing a floppy-eared John Lee Hooker groove in “Ghost Dance” and morphing Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” into a manic Muddy Waters vamp, the pent-up sex replaced with discontent. Unlike the recent Delta blues slumming of Eric Clapton’s Me & Mr. Johnson, Whitley is spiritually connected to the real deal. He doesn’t sound like a bright-eyed student or braggart aficionado, but a confident successor. And with records like War Crime Blues, we get to feel like we’re experiencing his acclimation first-hand.