Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang
islocation Blues leaves the sound of Chris Whitley’s voice imprinted in the mind. Whitley has always sounded haunted and haunting in equal measure, but his aspirant, resonant rasp has never been more eerie or otherworldly—and for good reason. Dislocation Blues was recorded by Whitley and Australian Jeff Lang in April 2005, two months before he recorded Reiter In with the Bastard Club and six months before his death from lung cancer.
As on Reiter, Whitley is forced to curtail his vocal phrasing, but he paints with the new reluctant, whispery texture of his voice as instinctively as he patterns his singing on the slippery, provisional licks of his national guitar. But where Reiter bore Whitley’s wounded voice on a litter of droning guitars, screening the man in curtains of reverb and spoken-word arrangements, Dislocation Blues is a bare bones partnership between the student Lang and the master. There are only a few new Whitley compositions here and Lang takes lead vocals on several tracks. But when Whitley comes to the fore, his voice is limned in the naked light of mortality.
But if Reiter wasn’t Whitley’s The Wind, Dislocation isn’t quite either; Whitley apparently wanted to call the album “Road Dogs Rule the Earth.” If Whitley considered the gallows-humor irony of covering “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” it was only to give the song its sardonic due. Strutting and scornful, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is the equal of Whitley’s two superb, poised Dylan covers on Perfect Day, but “Masterpiece” is the first time Whitley has borrowed Dylan’s 60s sneer, and it suits him surprisingly well. Almost as successful is the somber, funereal “Changing of the Guard,” marred only by Lang’s clumsy insistence, in the final verse, on the word “death.” Whitley, singing in a delicate, exhausted whisper, stumbles straight past.
Lang, who produced the album, is an able singer and better slide guitarist. His compositions cannot match the shamanic immediacy of Whitley’s best work, but his sweet reedy harmonies brings out the vinegar in Whitley’s take on “Masterpiece.” Whitley needs no accompaniment; some of his best work features nothing more than voice, foot stomps and his urgent, mercurial guitar. Dislocation Blues two “secret” tracks, both recorded live, come closest to this stark ideal. On “Hellhound On My Trail,” Lang trades limber falsetto verses and slide licks with Whitley’s beautiful, burned-out gasp: “You sprinkle hotfoot powder all around my door / All around your daddy’s door / Keeps me with ramblin’ mind rider / Every old place I go.”
In Lang, Whitley found a kindred spirit and partner for subdued, wistful renditions of “Velocity Girl” and “Rocket House.” The latter, stripped of its original electronic bells and whistles, may be the definitive interpretation: Whitley sings softly and potently of regret and disorientation: “From counterpane to stratosphere all conclusions fade to black / Is there freedom from the hemisphere? Where there is no, no turning back.”
Whitley’s deep alienation has been at the core of his music since 1991’s Living With the Law, and if time has taken its toll on his voice, it has done little to reconcile the man; if anything, Whitley’s struggle has become more direct and more plaintive. The title track on Dislocation Blues is a defiant raga built on a riff played on a Turkish “chumbush,” and anchored, if the liners are to be believed, by an upright bass and a beaten barbeque grill. The music circles back on itself repeatedly as Whitley, in the resonant, unbowed tones of a dying prophet, chants, “Where can a heretic, where can a heretic / Where can a heretic call home?” For the millenarian Whitley the quest is nothing new, but for his audience, everything has changed.