William Elliott Whitmore Covers the Cosmos on 'Kilonova'

Photo: Doug Ewing / Courtesy of Bloodshot Records

William Elliott Whitmore has just released his first album of covers. Kilonova features ten renditions of well-known and obscure songs that have never sounded as organic as they do here.

William Elliott Whitmore


7 September 2018

After six full-length albums of original material, Iowa plowboy William Elliott Whitmore has just released his first album of covers. Kilonova features ten renditions of well-known and obscure songs that have never sounded as organic as they do here. After all, this is from a man who once sang about eating and drinking rich black soil! He has a deep, gruff voice that seems to come from the back of his aching throat. That makes him sound hard-working and sincere whether he's singing the blues, observing social injustice, commenting on the meaning of life, or running from the law. His gravitas is augmented by a sense of humor at the absurdity of it all. He sings with a hick accent (re: "forget" always sounds like "fergit") which isn't really the way farmers talk in the Hawkeye State, but he is authentically rural.

Take his acapella version of Dock Boggs' 1920s melancholy "Country Blues". Whitmore's solo vocals sound like they come right out of an old 78 rpm record without the scratches. He keeps the cadence moving forward without ever rushing forward to mimic the walk of life to a certain death. We are all in the jailhouse of existence until the end. And don't expect any solace from God. Whitmore takes punk band Bad Religion's anthemic atheistic "Don't Pray on Me" and turns it into a banjo strummin' ditty delivered by a rural preacher right out of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. In addition, he transforms ZZ Top's vision of an angel "Hot Blue and Righteous" and into a soulful plea for connection to another human being. The songs stay true to their original themes even as he twists them into something strangely different from their initial concerns.

Speaking of strangely different, Whitmore also takes on Captain Beefheart's "Bat Chain Puller" and transforms it into an acoustic surrealist composition full of odd squeals and time structures. Whitmore sings it in a full, rich, authoritative voice that seems to come from heaven as he makes pronouncements and observations. While Whitmore and Beefheart share similar low baritones, the two performances are very different. In Whitmore's version, the wry archness of Beefheart's visions fall like drops on a dry field and evaporate soon after they hit the ground. Whitmore has one waiting for the next line in anticipation while Beefheart has one wondering what has been heard.

Kilonova's most poignant song is Whitmore's acoustic folk rendition of Stephin Merritt's "Fear of Trains". Whitmore sings of the mythic plight of a Blackfoot girl whose family, culture, and ways of life have been destroyed by white civilization's progress. Merritt's lyrics are associative more than narrative and jump all over the map. Whitmore shows the links and influences in his emotive rendering of her tale. He strums and picks his guitar gently to set the mood while he sings in a mellow voice of a girl whose spirit was shattered by forces beyond her control that she would never understand.

Whitmore also has a sense of humor and does serious/funny songs made famous by Jimmy Driftwood ("Run, Johnny, Run"), Johnny Cash ("Five Feet High and Rising") and Ray Charles ("Busted"). Hard times are always good for laughs, and Whitmore understands comedy is best delivered with a dry expression. There may be nothing funny about being harassed by the government, living in poverty, or being washed out of one's home, but then again, it really is amusing in a cosmic sense. One can't really help but smiling at someone else's troubles.

The whole rationale behind an album of covers is that there is more than one way to hear a song. Whitmore doesn't just offer other versions here. He makes these songs distinctively his own through his varied approaches to the material. Kilonova is an astronomical term about what happens cosmically when two stars collide and create an energy larger than simple addition would suggest. That seems an apt metaphor for what happens here.

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