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Chris Whitley Rocket House

Hereby submitted for public referendum: The Chris Whitley Recognition Act of 2001. Vote now. Vote often. Start at your local record retailer by obtaining a copy of Rocket House.

Listening to this disc is like walking into a freaky dream — unsettling, illuminating, mind-bending.

With popular music, and rock in particular, in such a bad place that a band like Radiohead is lauded for its genius, it's simply a damn shame that hardly anyone even knows Whitley's name. It could have been different. Whitley debuted in 1991 with a seductive slice of desert-style blues-rock called Living With the Law (Sony) that sold relatively well. Did he build on his fledgling success? Hardly. Four years later, influenced by the Nirvana revolution, he weighed in with Din of Ecstasy, a thick, druggy brew that sprayed shards of electric guitar into the cosmos. It summarily stiffed, raising the existential question: If a musician creates a masterpiece and no one hears it, is it a masterpiece? Sony dropped Whitley after '97's doomed Terra Incognita. He then released three strong indie discs made on the cheap, and is now on Dave Matthews' ATO imprint, working with a real budget again.

Rocket House further certifies Whitley as one of the most innovative, shape-shifting, and challenging figures in popular music — in short, one of the few artists in rock who matters. The album is another stylistic breakthrough in a career marked by them. Working with producer Tony Mangurian (Luscious Jackson), Whitley has infused his droney future blues with a sublime mix of programming and loops, but in a fresh, well-balance manner that still manages to incorporate his gritty work on dobro, banjo and slide.

Oftentimes, the roil of sonics that backs Whitley's soulful moan is hard to break down. Is that a back-masked guitar? Is that snippet of weirdness from DJ Logic's turntable? Does that warped little series of blips emanate from a keyboard? In the end, it doesn't matter. These rhythm tracks are impeccably melded to create an intoxicating, neo-psychedelic swirl. Sometimes, a single element carries a song: On Chain, a computer-treated vocal refrain by Whitley's 14-year-old daughter Trixie courses through the song like dripping paint.

But if all Rocket House amounted to was a riveting amalgam of sounds, it would merely be a good album. That's where the songs come in. Whitley writes spectral tunes with subtle hooks that insinuate themselves though trance-like repetition — although he's capable of writing more anthemic fare, like Say Goodbye, which calls to mind U2. Most of the disc's songs are slow to medium tempo, which is where Whitley is most effective.

So there you have it. The polls are open, folks. Why keep supporting the same tired old candidates when an energetic visionary is just a trip to the store away? (ATO, www.atorecords.com)

—Eric Snider

Tricky Blowback

Six of the 13 tracks on Blowback feature aggressive dancehall MC Hawkman. Apart from a horrendous cover of Nirvana's Something in the Way, the collaborations are original, emotive and crudely pretty, a return to the form Tricky showed on his early albums. Elsewhere, Tricky offsets his rasping free verse with harmony-laden guest vocals (by Ed Kowalczyk of Live, R&B artist Ambersunshower, Anthony Kiedis, Alanis Morissette and Cyndi Lauper), a shaky move that all but hijacks the album. Some of the cameos offer dramatic contradictions of light and dark tones and score minor successes, notably Five Days (with Cyndi Lauper) and Girls (with Kiedis and guitarist John Frusciante). But this largely lackluster disc's best songs are the raw cuts with Hawkman, capturing Tricky at his best, at a spiritual and literal street level. (Hollywood)

—Cooper Cruz


Lucinda Williams Essence

Following the critical and commercial success of 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams had every reason to return to the studio and re-create the same sound that propelled her to the spotlight. Of course, Williams — one of the most ambitious singer/songwriters alive — did nothing of the sort. She eschewed the straightforward roots-rock of Car Wheels in favor of slower, more atmospheric blues and country leanings. Gone are the Flannery O'connor-styled narratives found on her previous albums. On Essence, Williams opts for minimalism and sheer lyrical emotion. There is not a word in her new collection that does not tell. The disc is dark, brooding and sounds best after the sun has vanished from the sky. On Essence, Lucinda Williams bares her soul like only a very few artists are capable of doing, successfully hitting on the universal truths that drive and torture each one of us. (Lost Highway)

—Wade Tatangelo


Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers

Your Game Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C. He's the godfather of go-go, which doesn't mean a whole lot unless you're hip to the ever-funky sound that has flourished in and around D.C. but never made much of a dent outside the region. Brown, a veteran singer/guitarist, leads a tight, eight-piece ensemble through a 64-minute party — which sticks to one nonstop groove throughout. And what a groove it is — a syncopated beat that rolls along at a loping 85 beats-per-minute (more energetic folk can easily dance to it double-time, though). Brown and his Soul Searchers go-go-ize everything from the Stylistics' People Make the World Go Round to the Willie Dixon blues classic Hoochie Coochie Man to Herbie Hancock's Chameleon (where monster riffs from a three-man horn section come into play). Your Game deftly captures the exuberance of Brown's live set, with it's consummate spontaneity, ad hoc segues, call-and-response, audience participation and, sometimes, the band groovin' just for the sake of it. (Raw Venture/Liaison, www.liaisonrecords.com)

—Eric Snider


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