After a pair of internet-only live solo acoustic releases -- the excellent Weed and War Crime Blues -- the enigmatic Chris Whitley returns to the studio with Soft Dangerous Shores. Produced by Malcolm Burn -- who also chaired Whitley's 1991 debut Living with the Law -- the set is a deeply atmospheric, intricately textured collection of skeletally arranged expressionistic tunes that have their roots in folk, jazz, rock, and mutant, witchy blues. And unlike Living with the Law, this is a more nocturnal affair and owes no allegiance to country. Accompanied by a small band, Whitley digs deep into drones, open tunings, and edgeless dissonance. Along with his trademark guitar sound, Burn, who plays keyboards, layers in eerie sounds; they float and hover, drift and wave over and through the guitars and percussions. The shuffling snare and bass drum on "Fireroad," anchors Whitley's shapeshifting melodic frame as the National punctuates it all with a taut urgency: "I been making then making the song trespassing home/Engine of Blood, flywheel of bone/Illuminate Me, illuminate you/We could escape fireroads for two..." Feedback and Dan Whitley's electric slip into the middle to add edge and tension. On the title track, drums and loops pop in the foreground, and Whitley fingerpicks an elliptical line in near-whispered restraint as the instruments all bleed together like an opium dream. "As Day Is Long" is the only bona fide rocker on the set, and the guitars heave and hum as keyboards, drums, and sonics rip at the edges. The keyboards in "City of Women" and the rumbling, near-subsonic noise at the bottom make the tune seem truly ominous until a drifty, dreamy bottleneck slide suddenly emerges to hold down the little structure there is. On the final cut, "Breath of Shadows," Whitley plays banjo, stripping everything away from his naked, erotic poetry: "Steal me now/Into breathing rooms/under steaming oaths/til my lips can trace the shade between your thighs. As he sings, Burn feeds in a lone keyboard line, one or two notes that carry the lyrics right into the bone and marrow of the listener. Whitley has not been given proper credit for his innovative and uncompromising method of songwriting and arranging; Soft Dangerous Shores finds him at a whole different level of his craft.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek