When William Elliott Whitmore released Animals In The Dark (the singer's ANTI– debut) two years ago, he made a remarkable impression. Songs like “Johnny Law,” “Mutiny” and “Hard Times” all drew a parallel between the hardship and will to overcome it which fueled the field music in the air in the American south during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the sense of frustration inherent to punk rock beautifully. He essentially created a new and compelling hybrid of those two sources which implied that time meant nothing and the same feelings of social inferiority were still valid and they could still connect with listeners. The results were excellent, but the singer has taken a step back from that success for his follow-up to better examine and enrich the beginnings of where the songs from Animals In The Dark came from on Field Songs.
Meant to sound like it was cut live off the floor of a barn in the backwoods of the heartland (it wasn't – Field Songs was recorded at Flat Black Studios in Iowa last year – all of the extra, ambient sounds listeners hear on the record were captured and added after the fact), Field Songs focuses on the folkier side of Whitmore's music and strips every single extraneous instrument ever previously attached to the singer away to leave just a single acoustic guitar and the singer's voice alone to represent him. The nude production is disconcerting at first, but becomes welcome quickly as the songs prove to stand up stacked against the wildly over-produced and inflated fare currently inhabiting rock, punk, pop and folk; where some who haven't heard it might think assume it sounds thin, it does not – it just sounds genuine and inviting.
Field Songs whispers its way to grandeur as, with a few birds and ambient sounds to open “Bury Your Burdens In The Ground,” Whitmore sets a completely unadorned stage before beginning to furnish it very modestly with the eight songs that follow. The lonely, papery guitar which ends up reappearing occasionally throughout the album chimes in for the first time here, followed by Whitmore's own wary vocal. Without even trying, the singer has his audience hooked from there on out; as was the case of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and most of the early demos that Bob Dylan recorded (which have since been bootlegged to kingdom come), listeners will be caught as curious first before they're totally enthralled by the nuance and subtlety of the song and the continuing presentation of the album. From there, while a little bit more polish gets added to really made that guitar sparkle and very, very spare instrumentation gets added for a little extra punch occasionally, Whitmore examines hardship and the elated victory expressed when obstacles are overcome in songs including “Field Song,” “Don't Need It,” “Everything Gets Gone, “Let's Do Something Impossible” and “Get There From Here” and discovers the treasure trove of emotional gold there. Listeners will have no trouble at all falling into and living out each of these songs because somehow they instinctively know each of them already; they are timeless and old even they were only just written and, if listeners can't find something of themselves in them on first exposure, they'll want to absorb them right away because they're just so green and welcoming.
When “Not Feeling Any Pain” arrives to close the record, the spell of Field Songs is broken by the larger drum sounds and electric guitar which color it. When that happens, a listener's first reaction will be shock on reflex alone; after such a calming, sweet affair as the previous seven songs on the album, the sudden intrusion of rockist sensibility seems abhorrent. That first impression fades quickly though, as listeners realize that “Not Feeling Any Pain” exists as it does to let William Elliott Whitmore come back to the modern age and continue forward with his muse. Now having informed audiences on where he's coming from and enriched his palette, the singer will be able to build up his music beyond Animals In The Dark with the authority and strength of an artist who has given his forebears their due; there's no telling what he'll do next but, if it's half as rewarding as the combination of Animals In The Dark and Field Songs, fans are in for a feast.
Field Songs is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .
It’s been thirty years now since Howlin’ Wolf died and, in the decades since his passing, no one has matched the raw vocal power that he commanded. Wolf could punch listeners in the guts and wind them with just one syllable of course, but it was when he moaned in that low, ground-shaking baritone that everyone listening could feel it resonate in their bone marrow – they singer’s potency and presence was just that powerful. For those reasons and more, Howlin’ Wolf is justifiably regarded as a classic figure in the pantheons of both blues and popular music and no one has ever tried to challenge that position – but does that mean no one could? Wolf’s songs were very much the product of a time – with the flavors of civil unrest, racial inequality, poverty, desperation and redemption dominating songs like “Spoonful,” “Backdoor Man, “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “Smokestack Lightnin’” to start – would those themes translate to a new century? On Animals In The Dark [his fifth album since appearing in 1999, and first for Anti –ed], William Elliott Whitmore draws in the connecting lines to prove they do and does it in a baritone that rivals the true, warm tone of Wolf, but in addition to utilizing a timeless form, he updates those ideas with some punk and hardcore-identified senses of proletariat pride, forthright honesty and a take-no-shit stance to show that they still hold water and the whole thing isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia.
As the album opens with military snare-and-bass drumming and gang choral call-and-response in the appropriately dissenting “Mutiny,” Whitmore starts walking with a purpose and with an authority built from equal parts soul and righteous indignation which produces an attractive and arresting vibe. It’s a genuinely magical moment – the sound of a weary survivor still with some fight left in him standing up in protest to show that he won’t ever be laid low – that Whitmore stands behind on each of the following nine steps that he treads through the album’s runtime. He stands tall and steadfastly through songs including “Hell Or High Water,” “Lifetime Underground” and “A Good Day To Die,” but it isn’t as if he’s asking for volunteers to join him along the way not even other players; any additional instrumentation is slight (many songs are made up only of Whitmore’s voice and guitar or banjo) and production spare – like the singer has made Animals In The Dark as a personal test of will and strength. He sees adversity around every corner and ready tto leap out at every turn (“Who Stole The Soul” looks dry-eyed upon heartbreak while “Johnny Law” sneers at cops, “Old Devils” takes aim at the US government and “Hell Or High Water” weeps for fallen friends) but still he walks on tall; refusing to give any one of those adversaries any more time for address than they’re due.
Even so, the soul in the singer’s voice can’t help but betray some empathy and, when he preaches some divine anticipation and intervention in “There’s Hope For You” there is also more than a passing hint of resignation in it when he moans “There’s hope for you, but it’s much too late for me.” It’s actually staggering how bleak that sentiment is for a singer that has yet to celebrate his thirty-first birthday. In the end, as “A Good Day To Die” fades out and listeners are left to try and decide what they’ve just experienced, it suddenly becomes clear: age and hardship are not active contributors to playing the blues well, as Howlin' Wolf once illustrated, the most important elements are desire and will. William Elliott Whitmore has a surplus of both here and he will expose the uninitiated to a process of belief that will leave them forever changed.
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Animals In The Dark is out February 17. Buy it on Amazon.