Hotel Vast Horizon
remember attending a folk festival every summer with my parents, and although much of that time was spent sprawled on a hillside with Lazer Guided Melodies playing through headphones, I do feel a certain nostalgic attraction to that sort of music, all good nature and stories told over simplistic acoustic chords. And that’s what I expected from Chris Whitley.
I was instead surprised by an album that overcame any nostalgia, stronger and more strange than what I expected. Whitley decamped to Dresden over a week in December to record with a German bassist and drummer. The photos in the CD booklet are white and pristine and mostly empty, like the songs.
The first thing that strikes you about Hotel Vast Horizon are the drums, in the forefront in almost all of the songs, either clipped and measured or brushed and curling like smoke, cymbal splashes pattering on the windows. The bass is mostly subliminal, and Whitley's acoustic guitar is at right angles to his hushed, throaty singing and the rhythm section. Whitley and the band produced the album, giving Hotel Vast Horizon a sound as cloistered and unique as the snowbound palaces in the pictures on the sleeve.
These are songs of distance and constricted open space; "Frontier" tells us “velocity reveals / the faith of pioneers”, and if this is never quite made explicit, if none of these songs are, there is still a quiet power, almost tensile, lurking in the album, in the title track and its hushed epilogue "Blues For Andre". Here the drums and Whitley's voice provide almost all of the sound, miles away from folk but not quite rock, ignoring genres and being ignored in return.
It's hard to listen to these songs in the company of others, voices and movement disturb them and they ripple as ponds do under the pressure of a thrown stone. Unlike many solitary albums Hotel Vast Horizon does not demand night, but instead the cold clarity of light you see on a winter day.
It culminates in "Insurrection At Newtown". The drums are once again at the forefront, now harsh and almost industrial, repeating the same beat with no variation or pause, Whitley's guitar lively, darting in and out of the beats, singing of something “cutting through the backyard / dusting out across the trees / all the way from Detroit / by way of the dead seas”. As with Mojave 3's "Mercy", it’s a shock to the system after an album of hushed beauty, hinting at something darker lurking behind the backdrop of the other songs, and eventually you can’t tell if Whitley is reporting the titular insurrection, or calling for it.
Unlike "Mercy", however, "Insurrection At Newtown" doesn't actually end the album. There is a brief instrumental, "Free Interval", the drums finally receding in the distance, Whitley's banjo and some shakers playfully winding around each other. The name and the position of the song indicate that this is the pause after the album itself, as if the band were saying "here, this is what we did with this space. What would you do?"
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2003-09-15