“Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” – H. L. Mencken
Despite the atmosphere of hope in the wake of a new President these are troubled time in America. War, torture, unemployment, jihad (foreign and domestic,) global warming and/or cooling, a society obsessed with bullshit and celebrates mediocrity….the only thing missing seems to be is locusts and floods, but hey the year is still young.
Throughout history hard and turbulent times have beget great music. The 1920s and 30s widespread poverty due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl resulted in Aunt Molly Jackson’s Hungry Ragged Blues to Woody Guthrie’sÂ This Land Is Your Landl. The 60’s gave us Crosby, Stills Nash & Young’s (well, mostly Young’s) “Ohio”, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and John Fogerty wailed Fortunate Son. Sure the pop factories still pumped out confections of distraction, but the real stuff, the stuff that sticks and level-sets a society led astray by self-obsessed cynicism and thrusts us toward a greater sense of responsibility, civility and justice. That’s the stuff we remember.
William Elliott Whitmore has found a new home of kindred spirits with L.A.’s Anti- records, the more diverse sister label of the punk focused Epitaph records, and home for Bob Mould, Jolie Holland, Merle Haggard, Neko Case, the artist Whitmore is often (Erroneously IMHO) compared to Tom Waits, and the label where Marty Stuart had to shop the late, great Porter Wagoner’s last album (Wagonmaster) when Nashville refused to support the legend. He’s done his time on the road with bands like The Pogues, Murder By Death, Clutch and Lucero and cuts a lanky, tattooed profile of a punk front man or carnival barker. With punk cred and a hard core troubadour’s (sorry Steve Earle) ethic, Williams is the the most interesting kind of artist, a walking cultural mash-up with music and a voice that transcends fashion and speaks from the ages.
Some have referred to Animals in the Dark as a political work. I don’t see at as much as political but as a work. like his earlier Southern Records stuff, about perseverance of the human spirit against natural and man made woe and worry. The troubles here are just given a different face.
The trouble, and record, starts with Mutany, a military drumbeat driven call and response tale of a ship headed into bad weather and a crew taking responsibility for their ship and dispatching the drunken, incompetent captain.Whitmore shows his wry humor in this song by inserting the oft-heard (and sampled, right Nelly?) old school call and reponse from rapper Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn.” Love it.
Who Stole the Soul is a ragged lament of lost beauty and justice with a cello accompaniment brings a sense of loneliness and adds depth to Whitmore’s usual solo acoustic guitar. Johnny Law is Whitmore’s version of I fought the Law…with just as simple a structure and refrain, but he pulls short of claiming that the law won since he has the last word for the corrupt law man.
Old devils is where the album gets it’s name and it’s a song where Whitmore really starts to name names and harken back to a time when folk music was the Rage Against the Machine of its day. Corrupt politicians, draconian laws and unjust wars are all called out and the universal shit that comes down on the heads of those at the bottom is named. Hell or High Water is a wonderful barroom ballad of hope and faith in camaraderie in spite of all that came before of that will follow and faith again is the theme within There’s Hope For You with it’s Band-style organ and bashing swell of an ending.
Hard times traces an immigrant’s travels from Germany to the New World all the while struggling and bravely facing the adversity that chiseled and galvanized past generations and puts a spotlight on our own condition – what Clint Eastwood calls the “Pussy Generation.” There’s no appeal to higher authority of the deistic or terrestrial variety. It’s all bootstraps and grit.
Lifetime Underground brings Whitemore’s usual weapon of choice into the picture – the clawhammer-style banjo. Another tale of facing adversity, this time his own, as an ever traveling minstrel working the beer halls and Elk’s lodges of America in relative obscurity. Let the Rain Come In is a woozy pedal steel blues number that furthers the theme and facing off on the world and all comers. A Good Day to Die is a sentiment that nicely wraps up this fine release. Beauty and adversity are all faced in equal (existential? theological?) regard.
William Elliott Whitmore takes his music and themes into more primitive and universal territory than his more precious contemporaries like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Iron & Wine that come off as dorm room folkies in comparisons. Whitmore’s work comes from a harder, darker place…wherever people are struggling and gives them unity in commiseration, hope and, yes, beauty.
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William Elliott Whitmore – Old Devils – Raleigh, NC 11-5-08