Chris Whitley & The Bastard Club
hris Whitley passed away, surrounded by family, on the 20th of November, 2005; Reiter In was recorded in June of the same year. As such, you might expect something spectral, music soaked with the thought of death. The cover art suggests it: A figure, presumably Whitley, ascends a staircase in what looks like a subway station, walking towards an entry that pours forth light. “Reiter In” is German for “Rider In,” and also the name of a poem Whitley's partner Susann Bürger recites on the title track, in both German and English. The approach is layered enough it's hard to catch all of the import, but the clearest line is reprinted in the album booklet: “The rider is the ghost that leads the body.” Whitley was no stranger to the sparse and haunted; some of his finest work, from Hotel Vast Horizon to Dirt Floor is so tense that the thought of a dying Whitley turning his hand to an album in that mode is painful.
But Reiter In isn't about death, it's about life, and it's not credited to both Whitley and the Bastard Club (who would probably have become Whitley's first real backing band had he lived) by accident. It doesn't even feel like a wake, really; it's a very talented musician and his friends having fun. Any record that starts with loose, hammering covers of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Bring It on Home” isn't going to be bogged down with self-conscious sentiment. There are more important things to do.
Of course, part of the joy of Reiter In is that it goes from there directly to Whitley and drummer Brian Geltner's “Inn,” almost instrumental (and drumless, perversely enough) and beautiful in its violin-aided drift. Everything here is rawly recorded, with studio chatter and tape edits intact, and so you can hear them asking “did we get it?” as the song slows to a halt. And then a quick whirr of tape and they launch into a monumental cover of the Flaming Lips' “Mountain Side,” which sounds more like they're adapting Zeppelin circa “When the Levee Breaks” at first than the Lips. Everything thus far has been entertaining, but “Mountain Side” is essential, the band powering in around Whitley's guitar and voice. He has two covers to come, the Passions' vaguely New Romantic nugget “I'm in Love with a German Film Star” and Gary Numan's “Are Friends Electric?”, and he manages to remake both over as the kind of grinding, rootsy rock the Bastard Club are best suited to making, while still performing with the kind of love that ensures these versions aren't gimmicks. Those two, however, are nestled between the two most amorphous, dreamlike tracks here, lap steel player Tim Beattie's arrangement of Pierre Reverdy's poem “Cut the Cards” and the title track. Both are spoken word (Whitley in the former case, sounding wry while talking about death) over reined in almost-hoedowns.
It's the juxtaposition that makes this album so effective, the reflective meditations next to the rowdy covers as if nothing were more natural. After “Reiter In” Whitley tears through his own “I Go Evil” with evident relish, sneer back in his voice. This is a guy, after all, who skipped from sound to sound so much he confounded labels and fans, as well as struggling with his share of substance-based demons; the streak of perversity in his eclectic career has always surfaced as glee. “I Go Evil” is just another good song in a life full of them, but Whitley seems to take special joy in its fierce wah-wah and harmonica interplay. But the record ends on a more graceful note with the lengthy, gently rollicking “All Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever” and the briefly blazing instrumental “Come Home.” To the end, it sounds mostly like people having fun, no grand statements made. As Whitley himself chuckles at the end of “I Go Evil,” “it's cornball but cool.”
And that wouldn't be so crucial if Reiter In wasn't a posthumous release, but it was and it is. The temptation to do something “important” as an artist if you know you're sick with lung cancer must be enormous, but Whitley didn't succumb and so this album does wind up being significant. It's a particular kind of courage, to continue to live and love and pay homage and even party in the face of death and passing, to acknowledge death but to be unrestrained by it, and Chris Whitley's refusal to turn this music into a sob story speaks volumes about the musician and man that he was. The music here is fine and spirited and would be another good entry into an astonishing body of work had Whitley lived; as it is, Reiter In is the finest effort he could have left us with, and a fitting celebration of his life and work.