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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.