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Showing His Roots
By John Brodeur

William Elliott Whitmore
Ashes to Dust (Southern)

When the Big Book of Musical-Genre Classification* is updated in a dozen years or so, expect to see the name William Elliott Whitmore listed in bold print under the heading “roots music.” That term has hitched its wagon to a number of different genres at different times, usually to describe artists for whom it would be shortsighted to throw in with the regular “country” or “blues” folk. Whitmore’s poison is sold-my-soul-at-the-crossroads, swing-low-sweet-chariot Delta blues—distinctly soulful and steeped more in the sights and sounds (and other senses) of the American South than much of the “Americana” fare that’s been hoisting the torch as of late. Let’s call it Appalachica.

Better yet, let’s not.

The pungent odor of grain alcohol is present in the hearty “whoa” that opens Ashes to Dust, Whitmore’s third full-length LP. You can certainly hear it later in “Lift My Jug,” a train-driving, moonshine-drinking, dobro-blues work song that would have done Johnny Cash proud. The yellowy film from hundreds of hand-rolled cigarettes hangs heavy in his weary voice as he expresses sentiments of both fear and acceptance over the impending Judgment, the foreboding spectre of death constantly lurking in the shadows.

The other kind of hard times—lost love, heartbreak, etc.—fuels the waltzes (“Sorest of Eyes,” “When Push Comes to Love”), but it’s that first kind that makes for the bulk of the material. To say Whitmore has a bit of an obsession with death and dying would be to say that grass is green; his voice sounds like it’s being broadcast from the Great Beyond. He establishes the setting in the very first stanza of “Midnight,” where he calls out to the darkness, “Deliver me from this hell before I slip.” He’s pointed a direct arrow to his ancestry with this album: Death is life’s only certainty, and it was a main catalyst for the Depression-era music that Whitmore aligns with best. Other meditations on the topic of generalized woe include “The Day the End Finally Came,” “Digging My Grave,” and “The Buzzards Won’t Cry.”

The remarkable thing about this recording is that it avoids resorting to the regular trappings of modern roots music, leaving Whitmore’s gruff narration (gravelly doesn’t quite cut it; his voice is better described as razed and/or wizened) out front with little adornment. There’s little here to suggest Ashes to Dust is anything more than a modern-day field recording—percussion is limited to foot stomps and tambourine slaps, while a simple guitar or banjo strum backs most tunes—and that’s the way it should be. When a squeeze-box or E-bow does turn up to add “color,” it’s unnecessary.

These are hardscrabble tunes for hardscrabble times, and it would be hard to imagine anyone better handling the weight than William Elliott Whitmore.

* Definitely not a real book.

The Fred Hersch Ensemble
Leaves of Grass (Palmetto)

I’m not sure where I stand on Fred Hersch’s setting of selections from Walt Whitman’s great, quintessentially American poem. On the one hand, I applaud its artistry and seriousness. On the other, there are times it’s stiff, and how it would translate theatrically is a question I’m not sure I’d enjoy seeing answered. “Leaves of Grass,” which will tour, gives “an evening with,” that excuse for extended repertoire so many rockers deploy live to reinvigorate their canon, a whole new meaning. It suffers from some of the same pretentiousness that capsized “The Raven,” Lou Reed’s insufferable setting of Edgar Allan Poe.

I might like this for reasons that have little to do with music. I admire its politics, for sure. Coming out, as this does on many levels, is always the right thing.

Musically, Hersch’s “Leaves of Grass” is often lovely, traversing ballad, jump-style swing, samba, even hints of free jazz. Kate McGarry sings parts of the front and back affectingly and straightforwardly, and Kurt Elling, a Chicagoan-like pianist-composer Hersch, never gives into histrionics—even, perhaps, when they’re called for. A little less caution would have helped.

When you read Whitman, his flamboyance comes across strongly. Here, it’s downplayed, as if Hersch so reveres the bard, he won’t allow his music to express the poet’s exuberance.

Blending Whitman’s free verse with jazz, another quintessentially American art form, makes sense, however, and Hersch’s Ensemble is certainly technically up to the task. That Hersch, an avowed gay man, finds kinship with Whitman also makes sense.

“I first read Whitman in an American Literature course at the New England Conservatory in 1976,” Hersch says in the liner notes. “In particular, the poem ‘When I Heard at the Close of the Day’ had a huge, validating impact on me, a young gay man just coming out.”

Hersch didn’t choose the usual Whitman; besides “Song of Myself,” the selections are lesser known, if no less eloquent than the more famous “O Captain, My Captain” or “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Hersch also proceeded organically, singing the poems to himself until they assumed melodies he could enlarge for ensemble. As I said, the music is often beautiful, and demanding: This has the seriousness and finesse of art song. If Hersch had captured Whitman’s sprawl and psychedelia more effectively, his ambitious, politically undeniable and flawlessly executed disc might have swung as hard as the original poetry.

—Carlo Wolff

Half Japanese
Loud and Horrible (Drag City)

Loud and Horrible is, in fact, a long-awaited CD reissue of the long-player Loud and the EP Horrible by Half Japanese. Released in 1980 and 1982, these discs represented the band at their most populated, with six players creating the friendliest cacophony ever assembled out of rock & roll’s most basic elements. Loud’s glossy cover said it all: bright colors and the deceptively astute and controlled aesthetics of an instinctive artist on the front, with Madison Avenue-worthy photo vignettes down the sides of the back cover, bordering a group portrait of the band perched on a stoop making faces, then embellished with translucent brush strokes. The set’s 20 songs go to the heart of every great rock song since the hybrid baby of jump blues, R&B, and hillbilly twang let out its first screams half a century ago: lust and longing, romance and sex, and the youthful quest for identity and acceptance. Even some of the song titles themselves can knock the wind out of decades of generic inanities. They’re powerful and direct, but also smart enough to employ punctuation: “My Concentration, Oh No,” “If My Father Answers, Don’t Say Nothing,” and “I Know How It Feels. Bad.”

Brothers David and Jad Fair took the duo template of their previous recordings (some of which were dropped onto an unsuspecting world in the three-LP box set 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts) and invited their friends over to make it bigger. Horrible was five songs built on the enduring glory of monster movies and scary campfire stories. From the snaky “Thing With a Hook” to Jad’s breakout screaming on “I Walk Through Walls,” these songs speed along like a tractor trailer with Ornette Coleman and Iggy Pop sharing control of the pedals and steering wheel.

—David Greenberger


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