At the onset of the 1990s, Chris Whitley was promoted by Columbia Records as a shirtless, longhaired modern-day Texas bluesman, as someone who might pick up the audience share left behind by the passing of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Except Whitley wasn't that kind of bluesman. He cut the hair and the shirtless physique became skeletal, not sexy. His drug addiction removed him from the scene for several years; when he returned, the darkness he'd been through left him a changed man, one determined to replicate that darkness in songs that were quieter, heavier and more private than before.
Whitley has released several albums that, while critically noted, have gone mostly overlooked, from 1998's Dirt Floor to 2003's Hotel Vast Horizon. His latest, Soft Dangerous Shores, isn't likely to change matters. He describes it himself as a "Euro-trash/folk-blues thing," likening it to a mix of John Lee Hooker and Kraftwerk. Fair enough. This is spooky, difficult music; otherworldly and reminiscent of the ice-capped nothingness of Nico's The Marble Index or the haunted avant-garde structures of Tim Buckley's Lorca.
Producer Malcolm Burn augments the band's rustic attack still consisting of Whitley, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht and transforms it into a dream-like urban soundscape with his liberally applied keyboards and programming. This altered-consciousness production technique is overwhelming, the creation of an alternate universe where the sun never shines. It's blues for the 21st century. It's sad. It's raw. And it's freaky as hell.
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