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Published: 2001/11/21
by Jesse Jarnow

Rocket House – Chris Whitley

ATO Records 0003

My own experiences seeing classical music – in the traditional, pompously orchestral sense – have been somewhat limited. I will admit, though, that I have no idea what's going on, for the most part, and leave feeling some kind of drained. Sometimes that's because my ears strain to figure out what's happening musically. Other times, it's because the music is grandiose and works my brain into a frenzy in the same way a well-built jam does. In any event, there is not a fixed reward for listening to it, because I'm generally unfamiliar with the musical language. The results, for me, are a surprise, and it sounds – to my innocent ears – like each piece is essentially inventing the form. The strain is important, though: it takes a lot of mental energy for me to get a hold of what's going on.

Though I'm a little more familiar with the basic principles of the matter, I
feel similarly when listening to "Rocket House", the new Chris Whitley
record. Rock has been going through a studio renaissance lately. Witness the
newest albums by Radiohead, REM, and others, as they use the studio to
create rock and roll orchestras, not of strings and horns and kettle drums,
but of rows and rows of instruments that the ear can't identify, things that
don't have live analogues. One can point out sounds, but – when he tries to
describe them – he might find that they sound like no instrument he can put
his finger on, instead pressing it down into gaseous space as he tries to
find the center. A telling mark of these pop symphonies is that he finds
himself not really caring about the words so much as the tone of the
singer's voice and the phrasing that he uses. As talented a lyricist as Thom
Yorke is, I'll be damned if I can sing along with most songs on "Kid A"!

At any rate, "Rocket House" has the same characteristics. Sometimes, one can
place the source of the sounds – such as the incessant electric guitar on
Chain – but try to make out the layered background tracks that lie
beneath it and one is rewarded with a mind puzzle filled with backwards
maskings, plucked strings, stray piano notes, and other things. Whitley's
vocals are like this, too. They shift suddenly within the course of certain
lines. It's not so much a matter of verse-chorus-verse, but of an
ever-shifting melodic attack, no less schizophrenic than any of the
underlying tracks.

Whitley's last album was cute, but harmless and
irrelevant in the way folk music often is. He growled and
grunted his way through folk-blues (backed with the surprising rhythm
section of Chris Wood and Billy Martin). From that, I'd assumed he was one
of those folkies that hadn't said anything new with the
medium. And when he sticks with that (such as on Solid Iron Heart),
affecting his voice into a growl when he should just be crooning, it doesn't
quite make it.

Generally, if one is going to engage in a pop symphony like this, he needs
to have something epic to say with it, otherwise the ostentatious
arrangements won't mean much. At his heart, Whitley still seems like a
highly personal singer-songwriter. The lyrics are cryptic, and there is an
odd absence of the personal. There are plenty of first-person lines, but
very few descriptions of the narrator(s). Instead, they offer up individual
accounts of strangeness, descriptions of erratic behavior with no
explanation given. After floating with these things for a while – like a
Steve Erickson novel – one finds it harder and harder to get grounded
without the fundamentals of acoustic guitars.

If Whitley is going to continue to employ these sorts of arrangements – and
he should, they're a great idea – he should either have the songs to match,
or consider streaming down to a pop chamber quartet or something. A lot of
this material would be served far better with minimalist arrangements — a
Moog, a drone, and whispered vocal.

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