Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chris Whitley: Rocket House

In the long run, Dave Matthews' greatest contribution to music may not be his friendly hippie-pop, though he's written a handful of enormously likable songs. His true legacy may be as a label head, which is especially impressive considering how many big stars use their vanity imprints mostly to repay favors or humor relatives, sound-alikes, and hangers-on. But Matthews is batting a decisive 1-for-1 with the heartwarming career explosion of long-suffering David Gray, who bounced from indifferent label to indifferent label before Matthews' support made a left-field hit out of White Ladder. Here's hoping the streak continues with Chris Whitley, who has long experienced a fairly even ratio of rave reviews to albums sold. Whitley's refusal to ever make the same record twice no doubt frustrated his initial major label, as did his unfortunate sense of timing: He released his masterpiece, 1991's awesome Living With The Law, first. Since then, he's bounced around somewhat erratically, from full-throttle rock (Din Of Ecstasy) to an album of covers (Perfect Day) to stripped-down acoustic material (the outstanding Dirt Floor) and most places in between. Rocket House, his first album for Matthews' ATO label, marks another dramatic stylistic shift, using prefab beats and samples to lay on a smooth, menacing groove. The experiment, for the most part applied subtly, doesn't detract from Whitley's weary, distinctive delivery, and he smartly employs ringers such as Matthews (singing backup on the hooky "Radar") and his young daughter Trixie (sounding remarkably mature and confident on "Chain" and "Serve You"). The accouterments periodically drain off a bit of Whitley's ragged soul—he's traditionally at his best with less clutter, and a few tracks in the album's midsection sag as a result—but Rocket House sounds as creatively restless as the man who made it. It's not Whitley's best work, but if it's the first to win him the huge following he deserves, it might as well be.