When an artist's music has thrilled and delighted you, you'll forgive a few missteps, but Chris Whitley sure makes it difficult. He waits more than three and a half years before releasing a follow-up to his glorious debut, Living With the Law, and when he does (Din of Ecstasy, slated for release next month) it wholly abandons its predecessor's hushed grace and haunting Unforgettable Fire-type atmospherics for the corrosive power of scagged-out blues-metal. Whitley's departure from a commercially successful sound earns him points for artistic integrity but not for artistic judgment. Much of Din of Ecstasy is a mess, a discordant interplay of drawling vocals and flailing guitar. Had he pushed further, Whitley might have produced some interesting free-guitar freak-outs, a la Sonic Youth, the late Sonny Sharrock, or Neil Young at his wiggiest. Instead, he comes off as a guitar-wanking metalhead. (And a hophead too. The record's druggy, out-of-kilter feel and his frequent allusions to heroin are a little unsettling.) From the beginning, with his sleeveless T-shirts and lyrical references to trailer parks, he always had a strong white-trash streak. So if Din of Ecstasy is his bid to ditch Robert Johnson snobs for the crankshaft and six-pack crowd, maybe we should wish him well. Except that on a few occasions--the galloping "Din," the spidery "Narcotic Prayer," and the throbbing "Some Candy Talking"--Whitley brings his guitar flash to bear on smart, stirringly melodic songs. These live appearances may bring out his worst excesses, especially at the expense of Living With the Law's more subtle fare, but the strengths of that record and the best of his new material keep me hoping that he may yet fully integrate the crude and the sublime. Wednesday through next Saturday, February 25, 9 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark; 549-4140.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Julie Marr.