Chris Whitley, Dirt Floor

Thomas Bartlett

By Thomas Bartlett

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
A powerful work from a departed master

Dirt Floor is a miniature masterpiece, a 28-minute solo acoustic record, elegiac and tender, painfully intimate and laced with dark intimations of death — almost a '90s response to Nick Drake's Pink Moon (which, coincidentally or not, also clocks in at 28 minutes). On Dirt Floor, much of the aggressiveness of Whitley's past work (as well as many of the default blues clichés that have so frequently led the essentially uncategorizable Whitley to be mischaracterized as a modern bluesman) has been stripped away to reveal more clearly than ever before the emotional core of his music: open-hearted kindness coupled with an unconquerable loneliness, a semi-autistic inability to connect with other people. Dirt Floor was recorded in one day, live to a single microphone in a shed in Vermont, and front and center is Whitley's haunted, hollow voice, which floats like Hendrix, stings like Dylan. It's also a perfect chance to revel in the complexities of Whitley's singular guitar playing, a bastardized style that combines frenetic slide playing with a clawhammer-like right hand technique, and which often (especially live) can be so ferocious that it's easy to miss the virtuousity of it — the subtlety of the inner voicings, the tenacious, ragged bite of those hopelessly bent notes.