01. - Lyrics - Smokestack Lightning
02. - Lyrics - China Gates
03. - Lyrics - Drifting
04. - Lyrics - She's Alright
05. - Lyrics - Perfect Day
06. - Lyrics - The Wild Ox Moan
07. - Lyrics - Crystal Ship
08. - Lyrics - Spoonful
09. - Lyrics - Stones in My Passway
10. - Lyrics - 4th Time Around
The Musicians and other credits:
Chris Whitley - vocals and guitar
Billy Martin - drums, various percussion and more mud
Chris Wood - acoustic bass and strange overtones
Recorded by Danny Koppelson
/ Press Reviews /
An anti-war protest album may seem like a quaint, hippie notion to some. Yet the title of guitarist Chris Whitley's War Crime Blues now seems sadly prescient -- just as its driving emotions of frustration and anger, sorrow and pity, threaten to feel like fresh wounds for the foreseeable future. On the eve of his spring U.S. tour, the Texas-born, New York-bred Whitley recorded these starkly poetic, from-the-hip solo performances in a studio near his expatriate home in Dresden, Germany, as well as in a Paris hotel room and in a park, birdsong and all.
The mix of apposite covers and potent originals may carry a cautionary message of "Life is short (and then you die)." But for all the raw feelings channeled into these songs, not a single verse is stridently "political" or superficially nihilistic. A sense of hope and beauty resonates in Whitley's vital, very human musicality. Although he is armed here with the traditional Delta tools of nicotine-stained voice, keening National Steel guitar and rhythmic boot, Whitley's concern is the living spirit rather than the dead letter of the blues.
He remakes "The Call-Up" by the Clash, a moving solicitation of dissent directed at the young always sacrificed in military misadventures. His gritty take on Lou Reed's "I Can't Stand It" evokes the feelings of civilization unraveling that are common to anyone who watches too much CNN. As their titles indicate, Whitley's own "Made From Dirt," "War Crime Blues," "Ghost Dance" and "God Left Town" are haunted, haunting cries of sympathy and antipathy by turns. Perhaps most powerful is the closing track, an a cappella version of the old pop/jazz standard "Nature Boy." The famous closing lines have never sounded more desperately, elusively true than here, with Whitley sounding like a fallen angel offering hard-won wisdom: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return."
War Crime Blues is the second of two internet-and-gig-purchase-only albums by Chris Whitley on the Messenger label. The other is Weed, a collection of songs from earlier albums done acoustically, sans band. War Crime Blues is solo acoustic as well, but it makes a hell of a racket. Recorded completely live without overdubs of any kind, Whitley accompanies himself on bottleneck guitar and stomping board.
There are eight new cuts here, and three covers: Lou Reed's "I Can't Stand It," the Clash's "The Call Up From Sandinista," and the jazz standard "Nature Boy." If there were any lingering doubts as to Whitley's abilities as either a brilliant and original songwriter, or as a bona fide American bluesman in the tradition handed down from the American South, this disc should eliminate them for all but the most ignorant. Here, on songs such as "Invisible Day," recorded under a bridge in Dresden with its hunted witness to ghosts, and evil and loss-saturated shadows, those left alive are the lost, and those who have returned from conquests have experienced victory as emptiness and grief.
This is underscored by his devastating cover of "The Call Up," an anti-conscription song written by the Clash in response to the Falklands War: the track takes on even more critical focus in light of the current involvement of the United States in Iraq. The smoking crunch and stomp of "God Left Town" showcases Whitley's awesome bottleneck pyrotechnics. His rhythmic command of the instrument and bleeding lyric lines fuse in an assault on all that is mediocre or clichéd in postmodern interpretations of the blues. His tunes, such as "White Rider," "Ghost Dance," "Her Furious Angels," and "Dead Cowboy Song," do not interpret the blues so much as revision them as a living, dangerous, fire-breathing tradition. Whitley's cover of Reed's "I Can't Stand It" is ragged, switchblade rock done on a distorted solo acoustic guitar with organic foot-stomping percussion that shudders through the speakers.
The set ends on a haunting note with an a cappella vocal of the jazz standard "Nature Boy," and Whitley surprises us again, this time as an effective, nuanced, interpretive ballad singer. War Crime Blues is the album Whitley fans have been waiting for
During the past 15 years, Houston-born nomad Chris Whitley has tried to dodge the blues tag, saying it doesn't appropriately capture his self-described "psychosexual, socio-spiritual love songs that hope to (expletive) with stereotypes."
As his two new albums -- War Crime Blues and Weed -- further prove, Whitley doesn't utilize the blues' three-chord, my-baby-done-left-me constructs so much as channel a bluesman's method of playing variations upon a style.
Of course, Whitley's variations have been extreme, from the dusty blues of his 1991 debut Living With the Law to the guitorgy of 1995's Din of Ecstasy to the whisper of 1998's Dirt Floor to the jazzy covers on 2000's Perfect Day to 2001's techy, futuristic Rocket House.
The common factors were his fleet-fingered picking, his wraithlike voice and a knack for pairing words with iconic gusto to create his own vernacular full of post-gothic imagery: "my secret Jesus," "poison girl," "narcotic prayer," "automatic love," "blood antenna."
A Whitley "greatest hits" mix would befuddle a newcomer as his muse is prone to frequent relocation. But of his nine studio sets, Weed might be the best Chris Whitley primer, featuring 16 re-recorded songs that he wrote between 1986 and 1996. Half are pulled from Law, and for enthusiasts they're revelatory.
After rocking out on last year's Hotel Vast Horizon, Whitley has again locked himself in a room with just a resonator guitar and his stomping foot like he did on Dirt Floor. He pulls the sun-dried skin from these familiar songs and plays around with the bones.
Kick the Stones is perhaps the best example of how Whitley makes the familiar new. On Law, the song was full of spit and menace. Here that fiery grit is replaced with measured contemplation and quiet resignation. Law's title cut gets the same treatment, while the feedback-washed drone of Narcotic Prayer has been whittled to a similarly rudimentary state.
War Crime Blues is every bit as spare -- just a skinny guy wringing songs from a metal guitar and his thudding foot -- but the album is a different breed of cat.
Loosely conceptual, it includes a trio of seemingly disparate covers -- Lou Reed's I Can't Stand It, the Clash's The Call Up and the Nat King Cole standard Nature Boy -- that provide narrative guideposts upon which Whitley hangs his own songs: There's the seed of discontent in the misery, solitude and addiction of Reed's composition, the Clash call for breaking destructive cycles, while Nature Boy finds the exchange of love as the fundamental lesson at the end of life's travel.
Whitley's originals play off of these themes, filling verbal indictments of violence with flesh and blood and sinew (the foot-fabricated heartbeat on the title track, for instance). There is also a new rash of his vivid, haunting word couplings -- look no further than the death-cloaked song titles: Made From Dirt, Her Furious Angels, Dead Cowboy Song, White Rider.
The accompanying music is equally striking. A John Lee Hooker-tinged riff on Ghost Dance is engulfed in a storm of strings. Forget the blues, Whitley's playing echoes some of the European avant garde jazz practitioners who he's undoubtedly heard, having made Germany his home for the past several years. His is a subtly torrential style that at times sounds like the work of three guitarists.
At a half hour, War Crimes Blues is efficient. Any longer would have proved taxing, as it's a cathartic ride most of the way.
The closing cover of Nature Boy is a recording of singular resonance, revelation and perfection. Whitley delivers the standard a capella in a deep voice that hardly sounds like his own. It's haunting and hopeful and timeless, and not only does the cover make good on his promise to meddle with stereotypes, it also shuns any peg to style or genre, blues or otherwise. It also disappears in a flash, a whispered urge to start this fantastic album over again and have it lull you into thinking you know where Whitley's creative spirit is today, when he's already taken steps toward tomorrow.