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Dan Whitley’s “Calling All Gods” reviewed

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Nearly exactly a year ago, I reviewed an unmastered version of Dan Whitley’s  debut album Angels N Devils (here), a tense and brooding blues beauty with girls on his tail, devils in the tailgates and family on his mind, it was a tough album, tough to get into, tough to get out of.

I loved it and now I have the finished product, renamed Calling All Gods,  available on Spotify, ITunes, and just about everywhere else, and it has changed on me. Dan, the brother of legendary bluesman Chris Whitley and Uncle to nascent blues giant Trixie Whitley, goes his own way and sounds as though his study of a dramatic life is not what we thought it was. The explosive “Shine” is in shock relief to the brooding Americana “Don’t Belong” featuring a Jaggerish snarl, the rockabilly Dave Edmunds should cover “Devil On My Trail’ is a long way from  the Mick Taylorish  slide on the epic title track.

The sound is broad, modern, owing as little as Whitley can manage to his antecedents, for a blues guitarist he is as wary as Gary Clark: completely unwilling to justify his sound through even his own past. It is post-modern mood blues for a 21st century audience and new world  while remaining unwilling to justify itself to any one.

I wrote this during my initial review: “The album is very fresh, very alive, very very felt. Malcolm Burn, who won a  Grammy for Emmylou Harris’s masterpiece Red Dirt Girl and worked with Patti Smith on 1996’s Gone Again, one of her greatest achievements if only for the astounding paean to the recently departed Kurt Cobain “About A Boy”,  produced the album and then joined the band. Whitley again: ‘We didn’t use any modern digital methods to fix pitch or whatever and instrumentation are all natural and live recorded.  I hope that doesn’t work against it haha !! It’s still a professional record, recorded in Malcolm’s studio with killer gear and such. Just we wanted to do a concept record, for sort of a purity, make a roots/pop record the way they used to be made with a natural real vibe.'”

Give them “A” for concept, “B+” for execution, the outro of “Calling All Gods” is so perfect that you can’t help wishing for a deeper sound, oddly enough the less manufactured the sound the more the pop ethos emerge. There is so much  great songwriting here, it is so personal and deeply honest and  in a live setting (I know this for sure because I’ve seen it  on film) it throttles down on you, it is like a kick to the gut. On the album the explosions are doled out, what I wanted was ten “Shine” one after another, songs to beat into you,  a lack of self restraint. On the disturbing “The Killing Floor”, Dan keeps the terrors at arms distance: it is self-effacing and while the English in me appreciates the restraint and simple pride it takes not to work the audience through incendiary blues props, the song demands catharsis and doesn’t get it. The heartbreaking ache of “Genius Of The Light” could go either way but it sounds the way Eric Clapton sounds when he is going pop: Dan is so pained he resists the desire to battle his way out. I wish he gave into it a little more. I wish every  song here was longer,, they are so all so great you want Whitley to jam out on them, you want more than 90 seconds at the end.

If that is a complaint, it is relatively minor complain; both lyrically and aesthetically Whitley, to quote “Waco County Jail”, pushes it all too far, just as far as it could. There is a bravery in the face of his blues legacy here, considering what we want from him, what could sell so well for me, and what he has proven over his career Dan (who played in his brothers band) is more than capable of doing,  he consistently doesn’t do it. By the time you reach the harp solo on “Loving Glow” you have to give into him, you have to give yourself over to the blues to get the blues.  Whitley is too much the artist to compromise his vision for even a moment: every song is a perfect gem, like a diamond, it changes as the light hits it. It is deep, rumbling, older than its years, self-referential, a life in the rearview mirror  and you sink in and can’t get out. .

Grade: A-

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