Hotel Vast Horizon begins with a breath, the briefest of exhalations, a sigh almost. A snare drum stirs. And Chris Whitley takes his post as a tour guide into the “New Lost World”.
Whitley can rock, sure, but at his best he’s a master of mood and spooky economy. That’s all he’s about on Hotel Vast Horizon, which sounds — as he sings on that opening track — like it was recorded “underground at the edge of time.”
Whitley’s 1991’s debut, Living With The Law, married Malcolm Burn’s epic production with spectacular songcraft and Whitley’s subterranean take on the blues. Since then, he’s veered from the big noise of Din Of Ecstasy and Rocket House to the protean solo efforts of Dirt Floor and Live At Martyrs.
This time out, Whitley finds a middle ground between the sheer sweep of Law and heroin hoodoo of Dirt Floor. It’s an acoustic trio record, and bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht seem to pull their grooves directly out of Whitley’s rusty old National, which has always provided plenty of pulse on its own.
Hotel Vast Horizon doesn’t quite have the material to match up with his best records, though some — “World”, “Hotel”, “Breaking Your Fall”, “Blues for Andre” and the banjo flash of “Free Interval” — should insinuate themselves into Whitley’s canon. Sonically, the disc is a midnight joy, with Whitley’s slide guitar and weary vagabond voice floating in the dark air. Monochromatic? A little, but only like a Walker Evans print.