Great Fucking Albums #22: Dirt Floor

I guess it’s Dead Guy Week here at Bollocks!.

After briefly mentioning Chris Whitley yesterday, I’ve found myself unable to do anything but sit here listening to his excellent 1998 album Dirt Floor over and over. So instead of talking about the new Res mix-tape today (I’ll get to it this weekend or next week, I promise), I’m gonna tell you about another Great Fucking Album. File this one under Shit You Need to Know.

Chris Whitley, for those of you who don’t know (and unfortunately, there are way too many of you who don’t know) was a folkish/bluesish/soulish/totally awesome singer/guitarist who started putting out records in 1991, got shit out by the major labels around 1998 or so, and died of lung cancer in 2005. Also: he was probably the second coming of Robert Johnson, though almost nobody seems to know it (and if you’re gonna try to tell me that Eric Clapton is, you better sit down with some Chris Whitley and prepare to experience the hot, buttery taste of discovering that everything you know is wrong).

After getting dropped by Sony, Whitley recorded Dirt Floor to a two-track analog recorder, basically by himself. Live. In his dad’s barn in Vermont. The instruments were guitar and banjo, the percussion was Whitley’s stomping fucking foot. That, for those of you keeping score at home, is what I’m talking about when I talk about real shit. No vocal effects, no fancy foot pedals – hell, no fucking amps. I’m all for loud electric music (my favorite bands are the Clash and the Hold Steady, for dog’s sake), but there’s something so pure and dazzling about what Whitley did on Dirt Floor that it almost seems profound to me. When he sings about “returning to the wild where I’m from” on “Wild Country,” I get a chill because this music comes from a wild place if any music does (hint: the best music does).

Like Robert Johnson, Whitley’s guitar playing is loose and unschooled (Johnson learned from following Son House around, which beats the shit out of attending – and dropping out of – Berklee like John Mayer did) and his singing is almost other-worldly, not unlike the late Mr. Buckley. You know, it occurs to me that it’s a good thing I don’t get paid to do Bollocks! because I’ve spent the last two days listening almost exclusively to Jeff Buckley and Chris Whitley and it’d feel a bit weird to get paid for just sitting in my apartment (am I naked? You really don’t know) listening to amazing fucking music. What made Robert Johnson’s blues so great to me wasn’t just his amazing guitar playing; it was also the vocal sense that the dude was haunted. That’s a sound you can’t duplicate – either you’re feeling that or your not. John Mayer clearly can’t feel it and that’s why his music will always be a bad cartoon of the better music to which he obviously listens. Chris Whitley, like Johnson (and Buckley and Nina Simone and Tom Waits), can make you believe he’s outrunning the devil with every note he plays.

Dirt Floor opens with Whitley “searching a scrapyard for my dirty crown” (“Scrapyard Lullaby”), and you get the feeling right out of the box that if Whitley is sonically related to Robert Johnson, he’s a closer cousin to Tom Waits (so he’s still in pretty stellar company) lyrically. There’s lots of steel and rust on Dirt Floor, jackhammers break rocks (the job from which the narrator wishes to flee) on “Wild Country”, and references to dirt (obviously), grime, and fire (he sings “It’s so hard to get warm when it’s so easy to get burned” on “Indian Summer”) serve as evidence that this is an album carved out of the hard stuff of the earth.

Though I own and love other Chris Whitley albums (2004’s War Crime Blues, inspired by certain arcane political events in the early 21st century, is also excellent and may be listed in this feature someday soon), his vocals absolutely shine in the austere setting of Dirt Floor. His voice is warm, worn, and whiskey-tinged, evoking the best Jimi Hendrix vocal takes (I heard someone a few days ago say that Hendrix was “a bad singer” and I remember thinking that person was totally full of shit. Listen to “Little Wing” and tell me that’s not awesome singing. Then I will do something awful to your face) and delivering lines like “Broken can be golden in its very own time” with an unassuming authority. It’s no accident that my brain leaped from eulogizing Jeff Buckley as a complete, unique singer and guitarist to doing the same thing for Chris Whitley. Grace doesn’t sound like your prototypical 1994 record and Dirt Floor damn sure doesn’t sound like your average 1998 release (though 1998 saw the release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it was also the year that Van Halen released their album with the dude from Extreme singing and the year that Everlast released Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, an album that probably had wet dreams about being Dirt Floor. Also in 1998, according to Wikipedia, a band called Anal Cunt released an album called Picnic of Love). This album could as easily have walked out of the 1930s (imagine Alan Lomax recording Leadbelly’s cellmate, Chris Whitley, doing a nickel for bootlegging whiskey and smacking a cop) as it could drift back to us from the vast wastelands of the future (why do I assume there will be vast wastelands in the future? Because we have people in our government who don’t believe in science).

That Alan Lomax reference is sticking in my brain all of a sudden, probably because Dirt Floor is recorded a lot like Lomax’s recordings of people like Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton; it’s just a dude in a room, playing his music like maybe he’ll never get another chance to get it all out. But Whitley certainly didn’t make this album with some inflated sense of musical history in mind (the way Eric Clapton made his ill-advised and iller-executed Me and Mr. Johnson). No, Dirt Floor isn’t a folk-blues book report – it’s a séance, one that channels the spirits of Huddie Ledbetter and Robert Johnson and basks in their light the way only a true pilgrim can. I imagine Johnson and Leadbelly looking over Whitley’s shoulder as he battered out “Wild Country” the way the ghosts of Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker approvingly viewed the celebration of the rebel victory at the end of Return of the Jedi. That’s because I’m a fucking nerd.

But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

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