Hotel Vast Horizon – Chris Whitley
Messenger Records 14
I'm three months late with this review.
The first two months, I had really good excuses, impenetrable ones, as
deep and dark as they get. The third month I spent vacillating between
a state of emotional exhaustion and a state of rapt appreciation for the
new Led Zeppelin DVD, and just didn't feel like introducing myself to
the music of a guy named Chris Whitley. After all, Chris is kind of a
sissy name. I should know.
The press didn't do much to whet my appetite either — bunch of
high-colonic nonsense about "establishing parameters" in a state of
"solitary ache." His press handlers claim that Whitley "has become
almost a mythical character, shrouded in mystery and intensity." I
mean, how could you not want to hate the guy before he strums his first
diminished chord? Sure, I like Tom Waits well enough, simply because
he's a fearless freak, but the way the undergroundlings speak in hushed,
moistened tones over the mythos of Nick Drake, for example, just
prejudices me hopelessly against the whole
alt-singer-songwriter-with-a-leaky-heart-and-swollen-spleen thing. The
hype has stench.
So I waited until my mind was open, and until my deadline loomed again,
and I listened. I didn't want to be right. I was right.
The best thing I can honestly say is that Hotel Vast Horizon
might be good accompaniment to a hundred-year heartache — for that
break-glass-in-case-of-emergency moment when you need to know that
there's at least one poor bastard out there more miserable than you.
There is, and his name is Chris Whitley. He doesn't even need forty
minutes to persuade you.
Unlike Nick Drake, who at least knew how to create dynamic with melody
and varied instrumentation, Whitley delivers ten songs nearly bereft of
melody (both his charcoal voice and his rattling acoustic guitar are
mostly just rhythm instruments) and suffering from a claustrophobic
sense of sameness. Due diligence suggests that I should discuss some of
the songs, but I'd just be listing them. Okay, I did notice that track
nine, "Insurrection at Newtown," was a little more up-tempo and a little
louder than the rest of the songs on the record. Track ten, "Free
Interval," features Whitley playing some pleasingly funky banjo (funky
banjo!), but by this point I had checked out. Even my houseplants were
starting to lean meaningfully in the direction of my Led Zeppelin
Whitley surrounds himself with capable players. Bassist Heiko Schramm
deserves special mention for contributing some of the melody that
Whitley seems to feel is mere adornment.