[15 February 2009]
William Elliott Whitmore is a bit of an anomaly. He’s got the slim, tattooed body of a punk rocker and the voice of a 90-year old black bluesman. He’s a musician who has toured with the likes of Murder By Death and opened for the Pogues, but off the road he spends his days as a horse farmer in Iowa. His previous album, Song of the Blackbird, was something of a concept album, telling the story of Lee County, as it shifts from drought to flood. This is his first album for punk label Anti-, which has slowly but surely been increasing a country-and-roots roster that includes Neko Case, and for a short time before his death, included the legendary Porter Wagoner.
Animals in the Dark is Whitmore’s most political album to date, with several songs referencing the troubles facing this country, a problem which Whitmore blames on authority figures who abuse their power. The record begins with the nautically themed “Mutiny”, an impassioned chant without any instrumentation, save for martial drums thumping in the background. Here Whitmore borrows from old school rapper Rock Master Scott’s “The Roof is On Fire,” with the classic call-and-response, “We don’t need no water / Let the motherfucker burn”, clearly aligning himself with the protest-song genre.
The album’s title comes from “Old Devils”, the strongest song on an album full of strong songs. Who are the old devils? Whitmore calls them, “Those animals in the dark / Malicious politicians with nefarious schemes / Charlatans and crooked cops.” Crooked cops get a song all to themselves with story song “Johnny Law”, which Whitmore bases upon a true experience. Though the narrative within the song is entertaining , “Johnny Law” categorizes as one of the record’s weaker songs. The overly simplistic rhyme scheme seems as though it’s meant to be reminiscent of decades-old Delta blues music, but it makes the lyrics sound immature and not anywhere near the depth and pathos of his earlier work.
Like his previous albums, no truly happy songs can be found on Animals in the Dark. The protagonists of each song struggle with desperation, imprisonment and isolation, plus the aforementioned abuse from The Man. Those are the lucky ones; the unlucky end up in pine boxes. And if the subject matter becomes a little too repetitive after multiple listenings, there’s always the music itself to enjoy. On his songs Whitmore alternates between guitar and plectrum banjo to create a raw sound straight out of 1920s Appalachia; that is, if his rundown shack were also home to Dock Boggs and Henry Rollins. In other words, it’s exactly the way you’d expect a folky, old-time punk to sound.
Whitmore frequently tours and proves a dynamic live performer. In Washington, D.C. last month, his solo opening set was spellbinding and converted several cooler-than-thou hipsters to his banjo- plunking earnestness. Aside from this album (which, at under 40 minutes, is far too short), a William Elliott Whitmore concert ticket might just be the best 15 bucks you’ll spend all month.