It's easy to stack Chris Whitley's CDs in the blues bin; isn't that where every player of a National steel guitar belongs? But Whitley bridles at being called a bluesman, describing his music as "psychosexual, socio-spiritual love songs that hope to fuck with the stereotypes." Maybe Whitley's right. His most recent CD, Rocket House, was studded with guest shots from such notable non- bluesmen as Dave Matthews, Bruce Hornsby, turntablist DJ Logic and Indian percussionist Badal Roy. Clearly, Whitley loves most to fuck with stereotypes about himself.
Though Houston-born, Whitley was raised by his free-spirited mother in Mexico and Vermont and has spent chunks of his life busking in New York (where he says he sounded like "Gary Numan with a Dobro") and leading a band in Belgium. His career may have begun in the traditional Texas singer-songwriter vein, but it was his love for reckless rock and roll and other experimentation -- on and off stage -- that has been, according to some critics, his undoing.
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It's been 11 years, seven albums, seven labels and one heroin addiction (cultivated and defeated) since Whitley's debut, Living with the Law. From the "Big Sky Country" bluesy folk of his debut to the grunge of Din of Ecstasy to the Beck-like eclecticism of Rocket House, Whitley changes musical direction about as often as Bob Dylan changes religion, which may keep things interesting for him but makes life tough on fans of any one Whitley album. One feels compelled to drag out a paraphrase of that tired Forrest Gump quote from a 1994 time capsule: Life is like Chris Whitley's next album, you never know, etc.
Whitley loathes structure. As he once told Salon.com, he loves kindred spirit Johnny Winter because the Beaumont-bred albino blues rocker has never been bounded by riffs or scales, instead he just "blows it out." The same can be said of Whitley, who has created some of his most compelling and startling work on recent releases such as the low-budget, stripped-down Dirt Floor and his cover collection, Perfect Day. Rather than follow the paint-by-numbers approach to writing, Whitley lets the world be his tableau.