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Chris Whitley
Rocket House
label: ATO Records
released: 06.05.01
our score: 3.5 out of 5.0

Burning Down the House
by: matt halverson

It's getting pretty tough to distinguish one musical style from another these days. The lines between genres are blurring so noticeably that it won't be long before record store employees will have trouble deciding under which section to file new releases. The marriage of rock and rap seemed inevitable, but that didn't make the never-ending line of Rage Against the Machine rip-offs that it spawned any more excusable. So now that the rap/rock machine has reached terminal velocity, the market is ripe for a new aggregate to step up. With his first release on Dave Matthews' ATO Records, Chris Whitley has thrown blues and trip-hop in the blender to give us Rocket House.

If you stop and think about it, the two sounds aren't really all that far from each other on the musical family tree. But before you start conjuring thoughts of the disturbingly jarring combination Howlin' Wolf and Tricky might create, take a deep breath and imagine Johnny Lang sitting in for a mellow jam session with a post-Prozac Portishead as Martina Tooley Bird croons on the occasional verse. A traditional blues guitarist with six indie albums under his belt, Whitley has clearly decided to explore the lengths to which he can stretch his ability. While on previous outings, his guitar was the driving force behind his music, here it's merely one layer of a dense sonic package that includes synthesizers, bongos, turntables and drum machines.

Add the plink of a spacey banjo to that mix, and you've got the instrumental lineup for the dizzying "Chain." Fuzzy guitar loops swoop by like low-flying planes while a start-stop jazz drum drives the languid trip forward. Whitley's daughter Trixie adds to the disorienting pleasure as she chants "Round and around, it goes round."

At times it sounds like Whitley has stuffed his guitar into an amp and pulled it out backward. Wah-wahing riffs zip and zing back and forth until it's difficult to tell which way they're traveling. With the serpentine slither of "Say Goodbye," Whitley charms a synth guitar into Middle Eastern territory. "Rocket House" keeps the spacey jam going with a drum and bass track layered with Arabian chants and even a reprise of the album's opening track "To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)." Despite the fact that it never quite gets off the ground, the constant addition of new elements keeps it interesting.

Even when he settles into traditional stripped-down acoustic blues, Whitley finds a way to inject a subtle collection of not-so-traditional computer burps and flutters on "Solid Iron Heart." But he's at his best when he lets the B.B. King in him take a step back and make room for his inner-Tricky.

It's hard to say "peanut butter" if "jelly" isn't the next word out of your mouth. Captain Morgan goes best with Coke. But trip hop and blues? It may not sound like the most likely of pairings, but on Rocket House, Chris Whitley proves that mixing seemingly different tastes can create an interesting new flavor.

Kinda makes you wonder when we'll hear a Country/Electronica combo.

If you liked Rocket House...

Tracklist:
1. To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)
2. Radar
3. Chain
4. Say Goodbye
5. Solid Iron Heart
6. Rocket House
7. Serve You
8. Little Torch
9. From a Photograph
10. Vertical Desert
11. Something Shines