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Din man

Chris Whitley finds his musical heart

by Ted Drozdowski

[Chris Whitley] Chris Whitley has called his latest CD Terra Incognita (WORK), but it's more like terra firma. After ricocheting from his acoustic-guitar-and-ballad-dominated 1991 debut, Living with the Law, to his second album, the raging electric Din of Ecstasy, the New York City-based singer/songwriter has found a middle ground where he can comfortably plant his feet.

Taken together, those three albums diagram an internal odyssey that has Whitley defining himself as an artist. He explained that process recently during a break from rehearsing the new band he'll take on a tour that brings him to Boston and Northampton this week.

"The art-versus-commerce conflict is always a question for me," he relates. "Ultimately, it's about my identity as an artist . . . what kind of music I want to make, and how to stay true to that. The first two records, I was trying to get a grip on being signed and making records and what that meant in terms of my expectations and other people's expectations . . . just the industry cycle of regularly making a record.

"I feel I'm finally acclimated to that. Now, I try to accommodate my different complicated tendencies artistically, and be comfortable experimenting with song forms, exploring my tastes. I liked doing some groove things on this album. If a song needed a strong guitar thing, I did it; and there's the use of acoustic instruments, but not as a crusade."

Indeed, the up-front presentation of deftly finger-picked acoustic guitars and slide dobro in the firmament of Living with the Law, teamed with Whitley's relaxed arrangements and poetic lyrics, made him seem like a new folk-blues hero early in the decade. And when "Kick the Stones," his hit from the Thelma & Louise soundtrack, brought that sound to the mainstream, he was pegged. So when he came on like Led Zeppelin with '95's Din of Ecstasy, it didn't go down so well with radio programmers and fans who were expecting Living with the Law II.

Whitley -- for whom Din was a chain-shattering reaction to his potential acoustic shackling -- took the lukewarm reception in stride, toured in the US and abroad with a band and as a solo performer, and gathered his thoughts about how he ultimately wanted to present his music.

"I was dissatisfied a bit with my first record," he offers. "I didn't really know how to approach much of the songs, which I'd performed as a solo guy. I thought, `Everybody seems to like them as they are. Well, let's put a band around them.' So the first album didn't really satisfy me musically.

"I found out the full illustration of a song is more than the production: it's the arrangements, what other sounds you're hearing. Terra Incognita feels more like my own illustration. I produced it myself. So though the songs come from different periods, there's a consistent production through the whole record that kept the sound pretty organic and rough.

"I clarified what I wanted to myself. It's more my style of music than the previous records. Not that I have schizophrenic tastes, but I don't want to have to stick to just one approach. I can't articulate all the emotions I want to in one setting. In a sense, this time my songs aren't betrayed by the production."

Which means that Terra Incognita finds Whitley shuffling his electric and acoustic guitars as he sees fit, giving equal weight to ballads and rave-ups, making the overall sound of the disc change cut-to-cut while maintaining an edgy warmth. And his poetic instincts are intact, combining nature imagery with emotional terrain in numbers like "Weightless" and "Cool Wooden Crosses." It's a quality that marked him as a colorful and intelligent lyricist -- with maybe a streak of Walt Whitman in his soul -- on Living with the Law.

"I just can't start off with words in my head and feel like I'm writing a song," he observes. "I like playing as much as singing, and I need to springboard off a chord or melody to write lyrics. There's no separation in the singer/songwriter thing for me. When it comes to lyrics, the chords are functional. On this album, the sounds of the words -- how they mesh with the chords -- grew more important, and the inflections of how I sing them gives them more feeling than they might literally have. I guess that's where the poetic element comes into this. I've always felt that I have to believe words to sing them, but if they get too literal or too clever, I mistrust them."

Live, Whitley plans to mix things up . . . play a few acoustic numbers, lay into some rockers, and work that comfortable middle ground. His new road line-up features Bostonians Matt Gruenberg (the Dark, the Atom Said, Reeves Gabrels's band) on bass and Greg McMullen (Fire Pig, Tip) on steel guitar and dobro. "We'll be doing stuff from all three albums, and I'll get to play a lot of electric and acoustic guitar, which is great, because in a lot of these songs there are so many inflections for the guitar. It's really a chance to reflect something that's personal."

Chris Whitley plays the Iron Horse (call 413-584-0610) in Northampton tonight, May 1, and the Paradise (call 562-8800) in Boston this Monday, May 5.

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