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Chris Whitley

ROCKET HOUSE (ATO Records) • Chris Whitley

Sometimes when the music I have on gets unusually interesting, I catch myself gazing toward the CD player beside my work table, as if I believe the song I'm hearing is actually there. About a minute and a half into the third cut on Chris Whitley’s new album, Rocket House, I realized I was staring at the player, trying to see what made the song sound so good.

"Chain" opens with a furious electric guitar loop, upon which a scattering of soft notes (maybe treated banjo) fall like a tree's last leaves meeting a river. Even though I should expect a drum part to appear, I'm surprised when it does, the kick seeming slightly behind the beat, pulling up against the original drive until the song collects itself around the new rhythm. Then the loop gives way to a female voice that I imagine has been extracted from some overlooked corner of an R&B song, a singer I can’t quite identify, arriving along with the bass part, not bass but a loose dobro figure that completes the groove. Later I discover that what I’ve mistaken for a borrowed sample is actually sung by Whitley’s teenaged daughter, Trixie. The vocal has a something-the-neighbors-are-playing quality, soon interrupted by the intake of breath that precedes Whitley’s own low, sorrowful voice singing "I want to break..."

During the decade that began with his critically acclaimed debut Living With The Law, Chris Whitley put out six albums, each with its own unique character. Of special note, and in my opinion an absolute must for anyone who loves a pared-down acoustic sound, is his 1998 release Dirt Floor. But now Whitley has created a recording that flies beyond the sphere of his previous work, combining the qualities I've enjoyed most in what he's done so far with an inspired infusion of something new. Not experimental in any stiff or distancing sense, these tracks are alive with discovery, layered and intricate yet wonderfully free. If you're looking for a kind of Country Blues whose country is made of places all around an increasingly interconnected world, a real 21st century roots music, I strongly suggest you take a trip in the Rocket House.  • James Meyers

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