To simply call Chris Whitley a roots-rock artist is to ignore the complex route he took to get here. After all, his first album was Smash Hits by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He learned to play guitar while living in a log cabin in Vermont. He moved to Belgium and joined a techno outfit. Then he came to New York to concentrate on playing the dobro and perfecting his finger-picking techniques.
Four albums and an EP since biting the Big Apple, Whitley offers "Firefighter." The track -- built around a heavy, fuzzy, electric-guitar line -- keeps the emphasis on rock, sharing more with early Sonic Youth songs than the alt-country material currently making the rounds.
In a gravelly voice from deep down in his gut, a voice that aches under the weight of his hope, Whitley professes his feelings for a girlfriend. The sentiments are simple and short, but haunting nonetheless. The emotion is so raw it's almost embarrassing to hear.
In a musical climate clogged with banal sentiments and flashing neon lights, Whitley offers the antidote, wrapped in a tender gauze of distortion. It doesn't get much better than this.
-- Julie Taraska
Julie Taraska is the news producer and features editor for Billboard Online. Her work has appeared in Spin, the Village Voice, GQ and Request. Taraska was also a contributing author to The Rough Guide to Rock series.