Last night I had the pleasant surprise of catching up with my good old friend, William Elliot Whitmore. By a stroke of divine grace, the universe smiled on me for an evening and I got a call from my friend Laura Jane Hamilton who had read a blurb in the Washington Post that he was playing an called me. She didn’t remember his name by the time we actually talked so I had no idea who I was seeing until we were half way there. Anyway, I met William about three years ago when he opened for Murder By Death. He gave me some beer and we talked about where he grew up, which is Lee County, Iowa. My man grew up on a true to earth farm, the kind city dwellers like myself have no real concept of and have only romanticized through our dumb imaginations. The truth of the matter is, Whitmore is a living, breathing piece of Middle America. He looks and sounds like he comes from a place that has wide open fields of golden corn and dusty roads. He was born to play the music he plays and there is nothing else he could be doing.
He has also recently released a new album called Animals in the Dark. I have to admit I haven’t kept up with his music as much as I should have. Since last time he has released one other album and moved to Epitaph imprint Anti Records, home of such luminaries as Tom Waits and Bob Mould. But there couldn’t be a better home for Mr. Whitmore, for though he is young by comparison, his songs and voice have a wisdom to match these heroes.
And true to form he approaches song in a very nontraditional way, utilizing traditional, Americana instruments. He kicks of the album with a stomper called “Mutiny” which features his dirty howl backed only by slapping drums. Though he may take his cues from the mighty Waits now that he has a bit more of a budget to play with, it is only in approach that they share similarities. Waits can be found rummaging around in the dark of city streets or creepy abandon homes. Whitmore is more interested this time around in the human experience and sharing a common bond. His natural use of banjo and guitars conveys a historical familiarity that is instantly engaging and familiar.
Though he is by now means a thrasher of a musician, his kind and steady approach to his instruments suit him the best. A familiar song “Johnny Law,” reproaching the ever increasing and suspicious police state finds Whitmore coasting around the acoustic with a copper slide against the steel strings. “Old Devil” is another typical Whitmore song, but the slow, deep thudding of a kick drum adds to the tension as Whitmore slowly increases tempo and tension.
Sometimes thought he added instrumentation takes away from the power. “There’s Hope For You” was a gentle, beautiful tome, executed with Whitmores graceful insight. But the recorded version finds him accompanied by organs and a full band and for such a delicate song, it takes away from the power, rather then add. His front porch power is transformed into a hymn, which, fitting though his voice may be, does not do this song justice. The song eventually ascends into an E-Street like presentation, ripe with saxophones and dirty guitars. A fine performance, but so not necessary, in this blogger’s opinion. A stark and dark and simple approach, dropping the guitar and drums even might have made this version the center of the album. Whitmore’s power are in his words and voice. His songs and gentle in craft and his talent carries them. He doesn’t always require the added flavors to make his songs taste good.
Aside from all these petty personal preferences, Animals in the Dark is a fantastic album, one that I am glad I was whimsically allowed to catch up with. In these high paced, technological times where we are spread across the globe and engaged with each other in such impersonal ways, Whitmore reminds us of the human condition. We are organic animals. Our beauty, he reminds us, comes from our culture and experiences both shared and unique. It is the coming together of people that makes us what we are. In this day and age there is no better voice to deliver that message to us then William Elliot Whitmore.
photo courtesy of Anti Records. By Chris Strong.