Rocket House

Chris Whitley

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Rocket House Review

by Liana Jonas

Anyone who has the balls to combine turntable scratching and trip-hop beats with banjo playing on the same song -- and make it work -- as Chris Whitley does on the Middle Eastern-tinged "To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)" deserves a collective bow-down to. This unorthodox, textured, and electronic-oriented album opener to Whitley's seventh studio effort, Rocket House, sets the stage for one of the best collections to drop in 2001. Whitley's husky, soulful voice smoothly roams through throaty lows and lofty falsettos in a single sweep and is captivating, to say the least. Meanwhile, all things synthesizer and programming -- keyboards, synth guitars, synth bass, electronic "abstractions" (according to the liner notes), jaw harp, drum machines, samples, and others -- coupled with "traditional" instruments -- guitars, drums, bass, and piano -- and some pretty avant-garde arrangements further launch Rocket House right into the sky. There is plenty to recommend on this impressive collection. "Say Goodbye" is an earnest and moving blues-rock number -- accented with turntable scratching and contemporary sound effects -- marked by Whitley's visceral vocal delivery and a haunting piano. Elsewhere, the title track is entirely infectious and mesmerizing. A simple breakbeat drives organic guitar parts and hypnotic vibe and piano lines. The song ends with a series of instrumental repetitions, which inspires a lingering effect. Some artists unsuccessfully try to do this -- repetition -- and their songs sound painfully boring. But this is not the case with Whitley; "Rocket House," with each closing verse that pulses on, captivates listeners even more; you're still "in" the song way after it's done. "Serve You," in its haunting simplicity, is one of the most seductive songs ever recorded. Whitley's husky voice is layered over moody, dark tones, strategically random (!) synth chords, and a lone rim-shot line. The chorus, "Some day I will serve you/some day," co-sung with daughter Trixie Whitley, repeats throughout, and the effect is simply hypnotic. This song -- much like the rest of the album -- is like a drug, mind-altering. An impressive roster of musicians -- producer Tony Mangurian, DJ Logic, Dave Matthews, and Bruce Hornsby -- guest on Rocket House. For the uninitiated -- and if you are, you should change this status immediately -- Whitley's voice is reminiscent of Jeff Healy, Joe Cocker, and Shawn Mullins in its bluesy soul style. Rocket House is an out-of-body experience, and that just doesn't happen too often these days. Get this album and prepare for takeoff to a place that is like no other.

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