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Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang - Dislocation Blues Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    8
release year:    2007
label:    Rounder/UMGD
reviewed by:    K L Poore

ImageDislocation Blues is the perfect title for this release from the late Chris Whitley and Australia’s Jeff Lang. I understand that Whitley initially wanted to call it Road Dog Shall Inherit the Earth, and that name may capture the spirit of the music, but it doesn’t accurately reflect my feelings as I listen. It is blues and dislocation, pure and simple, but there’s something else in there.

It’s a one-off (and as it turns out, one-time) collaboration between two artists with skill, vision, and a core group of diehard fans who clutch each release as if it were going to be the last. In this instance, in Whitley’s case, that sadly turned out to be true. With Dislocation Blues I’m not certain if it’s the knowledge of Whitley’s death from lung cancer in 2005 that has put me out of sorts, or if it’s something else. Is it that I don’t want this release to be his last? Do I somehow think it distracts from the final statement that Reiter In was purported to be? Is it a really good but sometimes unsatisfying reflection of Whitley’s music, in the same way that his covers release Perfect Day relates to his greatest accomplishment, Dirt Floor? I guess the answer is yes. Like I said, Dislocation Blues is really good, and really good from Whitley & Lang is Blonde on Blonde compared to most of what can be heard passing for music these days. It’s just that DB sports moments of both magnificence and the merely good. Three of the covers, “Stagger Lee,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Changing of the Guard,” are interesting, provocative and, except for the presence of Lang, would be right at home on the aforementioned Perfect Day. Each is a reinvention of the original and opens up a new interpretation, exactly what a cover song should do. They’re well-recorded, well-played and well-sung, but they never transcend. They never step out of themselves and take you along for the ride. The dislocation you feel isn’t your “conscious self” leaving this world behind and traveling, enraptured, into the music. It’s more of the sense that things magical and mundane are happening in concert. And magic plus mundane equals confusion. And confusion equals dislocation. But not in the road dog way that Whitley and Lang intend.

There are a few songs on Dislocation Blues that are stunningly transcendent. The re-imagined “Rocket House,” the title track from Whitley’s DJ-oriented release by the same name, is so far beyond, and better, than the original that it has forced me to reevaluate my love (and in some instances defense) of that release. The lyrics burst out in this simplified version and the guitar interplay between Whitley and Lang is subtle and awe-inspiring. “I was only out a thousand miles/all religions fall away/I been running for a hundred years/but I always got some place to pray.” Cryptic and succinct, he’s explained the life of a constant traveler. The facades of common life melt away and you become self-contained. You never stop and you don’t worry about going back. You are your own temple. And along with these words comes Chris’s warm and worn voice holding together a simple and unadorned arrangement. This recording alone is worth a thousand of the latest trendy things happening in music.

“Velocity Girl” sounds as if it could have come straight off Whitley’s Terra Incognita. It rocks, the arrangement is tight, and it still manages to showcase the sadness, wistful moments and longing that frame his musical ethos. It is alternately romantic and blue razor steel hard in a way that only Whitley could be. It forces you to realize that you can huddle with the one you love and fight back against the impersonal modern world. Lang blows the song open with slide work that is ferocious, stinging, and bordering on out of tune and out of control, until the song lays its head back into its lush chorus and lets you know that as long as “there’s a place for us,” everything will be alright.

Jeff Lang’s contributions to Dislocation Blues are interesting and vary in quality from good to great, but the standout is in “The Road Leads Down.” Like the release’s other standouts it captures that sense of road weariness and alienation that comes with never-ending travel, and if this is an indicator of what Lang does on his own, he deserves a much larger audience, and I’ll be looking for him next time he passes through town.

And suddenly I understand what it is about Dislocation that has put my head in a quandary and how so many good original songs, strong recordings and excellent choices in outside material (check out “Hellhounds on my Trail”) can confuse me, when I should rejoice in having a little more music from Chris Whitley. Relocation Blues doesn’t seem so much a release as it does a retrospective of the road he traveled ‘til November two years ago. You can almost reach out and grab hold of the touchstones of Chris’s career. Living with the Law. Din of Ecstasy. Dirt Floor. Perfect Day. Hotel Vast Horizon. Reiter In. They’re all here, in Dislocation Blues. Along the road each one of those albums held together as its own chapter in an amazing travelogue, but with their varied styles melded together here they, conversely, seem detached from each other, like having interesting jewels spread out on a black velvet cloth and realizing that no matter how you attempt to set them, they’ll never work together, as a ring or a necklace or earrings. They’re beautiful, but they ultimately distract you from where you’re going.

And then the road ends, far too quickly. And you’re sad the journey is over. I’m sad the journey is over and Dislocation Blues is the last thing I’m left holding. It’s a jewel, but not nearly as beautiful as the others I’ve held.

Dislocation Blues is a bright and well-recorded release, beautifully mixed and produced. The other players, Grant Cummerford on bass and Ashley Davies on percussion, are more than up to the task of providing all the rhythm section sounds and styles necessary for a CD of songs as wildly divergent as these. These recordings (actually made prior to Reiter In during April 2005 and only now released in the U.S. because record companies were probably too busy bidding on something akin to Rod Raps the Madonna Songbook to pick it up for distribution) were manned by Mick Wordley somewhere in Oz, and he did an incredible job capturing everything from Whitley’s breathy vocals and delicate banjo picking to one of the most distorted guitar sounds you’ll ever hear on a recording (outside of the Beatles’ “Revolution”). Lang’s pure and even tenor is clear and his slide playing has just enough bite to jump out of your speakers and latch onto your leg. Alternately sparse and dense, Dislocation Blues sounds wonderful and is a high-def-worthy recording that will sadly never reach that format.

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