War Crime Blues is the second of two internet-and-gig-purchase-only albums by Chris Whitley on the Messenger label. The other is Weed, a collection of songs from earlier albums done acoustically, sans band. War Crime Blues is solo acoustic as well, but it makes a hell of a racket. Recorded completely live without overdubs of any kind, Whitley accompanies himself on bottleneck guitar and stomping board. There are eight new cuts here, and three covers: Lou Reed's "I Can't Stand It," the Clash's "The Call Up From Sandinista," and the jazz standard "Nature Boy." If there were any lingering doubts as to Whitley's abilities as either a brilliant and original songwriter, or as a bona fide American bluesman in the tradition handed down from the American South, this disc should eliminate them for all but the most ignorant. Here, on songs such as "Invisible Day," recorded under a bridge in Dresden with its hunted witness to ghosts, and evil and loss-saturated shadows, those left alive are the lost, and those who have returned from conquests have experienced victory as emptiness and grief. This is underscored by his devastating cover of "The Call Up," an anti-conscription song written by the Clash in response to the Falklands War: the track takes on even more critical focus in light of the current involvement of the United States in Iraq. The smoking crunch and stomp of "God Left Town" showcases Whitley's awesome bottleneck pyrotechnics. His rhythmic command of the instrument and bleeding lyric lines fuse in an assault on all that is mediocre or clichéd in postmodern interpretations of the blues. His tunes, such as "White Rider," "Ghost Dance," "Her Furious Angels," and "Dead Cowboy Song," do not interpret the blues so much as revision them as a living, dangerous, fire-breathing tradition. Whitley's cover of Reed's "I Can't Stand It" is ragged, switchblade rock done on a distorted solo acoustic guitar with organic foot-stomping percussion that shudders through the speakers. The set ends on a haunting note with an a cappella vocal of the jazz standard "Nature Boy," and Whitley surprises us again, this time as an effective, nuanced, interpretive ballad singer. War Crime Blues is the album Whitley fans have been waiting for.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek