Actively defying genre conventions in novel ways on each of his albums, singer-songwriter Chris Whitley is damn near impossible to pinpoint artistically and, as a result, is just as hard to recommend. Possessed of a phenomenal, distinctive classic soul voice, a high-poetics lyrical style that recalls the best of Richard Buckner, and a hell-raising talent for any type of guitar, Whitley’s discography ranges from full-on grunge (1995’s Din of Ecstasy) to stripped-down Americana (1998’s Dirt Floor). So it’s something of a surprise, then, that Soft Dangerous Shores sounds like a logical progression—as much of one as could ever be applied to Whitley, that is—from his two most recent major releases, 2001’s Rocket House and 2003’s Hotel Vast Horizon (in 2004, he also released Weed and War Crime Blues, both of which were available only by mail-order). Taking its title from a line in an André Breton poem, Soft Dangerous Shores builds on the dense, minimalist tone poetry of Hotel Vast Horizon, anchoring Whitley’s heady lyrics in an austere, haunting production that, like much of Rocket House, experiments gainfully with sonic dissonance and endlessly surprising rhythms. It’s a difficult album, steeped in death (from the apocalyptic imagery of propulsive opener “Fireroad (For Two)”) and eroticism (“Steal me now/Into breathing rooms/Under steaming oaths/Till my lips could trace the shade between your thigh,” is the final stanza of “Breath Of Shadows”), and Whitley is at his best when he looks for transcendence in the interplay between the two, as on the six-minute “City Of Women,” the album’s climax in both sound and in theme. While he occasionally crosses the line between abstract and inscrutable (to say nothing of the horrifying use of “paradigm shifts” without a trace of irony on the title track), Whitley has rarely found the kind of balance between artistic daring and accessibility as he does on Soft Dangerous Shores. It’s still too unconventional an album to regain the cult following he held briefly after his debut, 1991’s Living With The Law, but it’s an album sure to reward those willing to explore its varied terrain.
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