William Elliott Whitmore loves songs about floods.
This Iowa native tells tales of rivers that escape their banks, ruining entire crops and taking houses with them. Going as far back as 2006, on tunes like “Red Buds” and “Lee County Flood” Whitmore has displayed intimate knowledge of hard rain and hard times. Unsurprisingly, this seeps into his delivery of others’ flood tunes as well, which are in good hands when he chooses to play them. When he sings “How high is the water, mama? / two feet high and rising,” the words may be the Man in Black’s, but the spirit is Whitmore’s. He respects the power and inevitability of the flood; he respects the hardscrabble farmers who might lose everything; and more than anything, he respects the songcraft required to regard the situation from a number of angles.
It’s fitting, then, that Whitmore has a flood tune on new covers album Kilonova. The Cash song is one of the more successful cuts on a record that mostly works. See, a covers album is a tricky format. Unless you somehow strike gold, this kind of release can feel like anything from a victory lap to a collection of B-sides. The artist’s evident motivation, too, can range from a desire to present old songs in a new light to recontextualizing them to paying tribute to a beloved songwriter. On Kilonova, the strongest cuts are the ones in which Whitmore is channeling the spirit of the songwriter through his own experiences and the ones in which Whitmore is simply having fun. What we’re ultimately left with is an album that nestles nicely among Whitmore’s existing oeuvre, yet doesn’t necessarily push his art forward.
Next to “Five Feet High and Rising,” the Bad Religion cover “Don’t Pray on Me” is a standout track. “I don’t know what stopped Jesus Christ / from turning every hungry stone into bread,” Whitmore sings. “I don’t remember hearing how Moses reacted / when the innocent firstborn sons lay dead.” His is a simple and straightforward translation of the punk tune. Accompanied only by his banjo, Whitmore gives the fierce agnostic ode room to breathe, and “Don’t Pray on Me” sounds damn good as the anti-folk tune Whitmore has mutated it into.
On his cover of Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues,” Whitmore leans on another strength: that gravelly, broken-in voice of his. Yet again, he takes his time. If Boggs’ (or Doc Watson’s) version was a speeding bootlegger’s car, Whitmore’s a cappella interpretation is a crawling hearse.
Then again, it doesn’t all work. His version of Red Meat’s “One Glass at a Time” is maddeningly morose. At times, you want to jump into the song and shake the narrator out of his self-induced, alcohol-exacerbated funk. If Whitmore’s intent was to paint an accurate picture of how flat-out miserable a pastime drinking to excess really is, he succeeded. The song really does play like a plodding, circular conversation with the Tuesday afternoon regulars in some anonymous dump of a bar. As for Whitmore’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” it simply doesn’t work. The instrumentation is lackluster and groove-deficient, and his sincere rasp does not serve this R&B classic.
It’s easy to forget these missteps by Kilonova’s final cut, though; Whitmore’s cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Bat Chain Puller” is just plain fun. He’s right at home ranting and hollering gibberish over skronking saxophone and Marc Ribot-reminiscent guitar. Yet as this uneven (yet mostly good) record closes on his utterly enjoyable Beefheart cover, all that comes to mind is that it would be more satisfying to hear what Whitmore’s been writing than what he’s been listening to.