CD Review of Dislocation Blues by Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang

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Dislocation Blues
starstarstarstarno star Label: Rounder
Released: 2007
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Dislocation Blues is the second release to receive billing as Chris Whitley's final album since he succumbed to lung cancer in the fall of 2005; sadly, this time around, the designation would appear to be apt. Much as the late bluesman's fans (this writer included) would love for Whitley to continue rising from the grave, like Tupac with a National guitar, this set of recordings – committed to tape with Whitley's sometime touring partner, Australian roots musician Jeff Lang, months before Whitley's death – would seem to be the end of the line in terms of fully realized studio albums.

But what a way to go. As an artist, Whitley spent his career dragging a bootheel back and forth across the line in the dirt between traditional and modern, natural and synthetic, clatter and sigh; it was hard work, and for listeners who saw his recordings as destinations rather than steps on a journey, it was often confounding. For every stark, acoustic release (such as 1991's Living with the Law, or 1998's Dirt Floor), Whitley had a feedback-braced response (such as 1995's Din of Ecstasy). In keeping with this tradition, then, Dislocation Blues serves, loosely speaking, as a gentler companion piece to last year's thorny, squall-drenched Reiter In.

This is still Chris Whitley we're talking about, of course, so “gentler” is a relative term; his socket-eyed blues always had more in common with Lou Reed or Kraftwerk than, say, B.B. King – they were less a condition than a vengeful, literal presence. This is why it's only telling part of the story to say that Whitley and Lang cover “Stagger Lee,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and Prince's “Forever in My Life” on this set; anyone who grew up with Professor Longhair's version of “Stagger Lee,” for instance, will be hard-pressed to identify it here. Whitley and Lang take the popular piano boogie, flay it alive, and leave its skin twitching in the breeze, exposing it for the awful, bloody revenge tale it's always been.

This sort of dismantling and reduction sets the tone for all of Dislocation Blues; Whitley and Lang strip covers, old originals, and new collaborations down to their most essential bits, run them through a rusty old blender, and repeat. It's intoxicating, and Lang deserves much of the credit for this. On his own, Whitley was apt to spend a lot of time doodling in the margins of melody and song structure; here, however, Lang acts as a tether and a foil, providing Whitley with a response to his ghostly call. Guitar fans – particularly those of the National and lap variety – will find a feast worth savoring here.

Bassist Grant Cummerford and drummer Ashley Davies deserve special notice – they provide Whitley and Lang with a perfectly supple, earthy anchor, and Lang's production is appropriately filthy. Whitley's death remains a profound and untimely loss, but if we must have an epitaph, Dislocation Blues is as good as any.

~Jeff Giles