I still admire singer-guitarist Chris Whitley for following up his mostly acoustic debut, Living With The Law, with a white-noise album loud enough to make Sonic Youth wear earplugs. But it couldn’t have been good for his career.
Whitley, a skinny hunk type whose first single, 1991’s “Kick The Stones”, landed on the hit Thelma And Louise soundtrack, once had a contract with Sony Records and a gigantic buzz. An excellent slide guitarist with a curvy, confident voice that swings between high lonesome country and moaning country blues, Whitley unraveled that commercial potential one album at a time. Oddly, having emerged from 1995’s appropriately titled Din Of Ecstasy and 1996’s catchier-but-still-noisy Terra Incognita on a small New York City record label, he sounds much like he did at the start.
Dirt Floor, at least on the surface, has the same bouncy acoustic blues feeling as Whitley’s superb early singles, such as the minor radio hit “Poison Girl”. What’s different is a barren quality, a desperate confusion that’s occasionally similar to Richard Buckner’s suicidal country drone.
Whitley runs a lot on Dirt Floor, through barren Western lands and junkyards, to the water and away from the law. “Soon I’m gonna lose these rags and run,” he sings on “Wild Country”, then declares himself uncertain why all this running has to occur. “Tell me, Jesus, why’d he run?” he howls on “Ballpeen Hammer”, adding, “I’m gonna take this all for granted when I get there.” At the risk of reading too much into a lyric, this sure summarizes Whitley’s confused philosophy about his own career.
He finds his “Loco Girl” on the closing track, and she’s presumably not as potent as the “Poison Girl”, so Dirt Floor ends on a happy note. Fortunately, she’s a mystery — “I sense the memories on her skin,” he sings — which bodes well for the sequel, noisy or otherwise.