Din Of Ectasy (WORK(Sony)
Chris Whitley

By Bob Bahr

If an artist has undergone a more violent change from debut album to sophomore effort, I haven't heard it.

Chris Whitley's 1991 album Living with the Law was a rootsy slice of the Southwest, so twangy and hot you could feel the grit from a dust storm in your teeth. Whitley's instrument of choice was a National steel guitar and his songs were dialect-ridden glimpses of desperate lives and expansive yearnings.

In 1995, Whitley is showing his admiration for classic rock. Din of Ecstasy could have been a liberation party where Whitley abandoned tradition and joined the noise-rock brigade. It could have been more militant, more folky, jazzier, more challenging. Heck, it could have been anything. But with the exception of a few bright spots, it's often just more of the same thing that has clogged radio waves and restaurant-bar stages for the last decade. This album is fighting within; inconsistencies in tone and quality wreak havoc.

"Know" could be an outtake from Physical Grafliti — that's a compliment to Whitley's guitar playing and a jab at his stodginess. "O God My Heart Is Ready Now" is even more corporate-sounding, even as the lyrics walk a tightrope as high as Prince's sacred/secular passion fests.

Four tracks in, the soul and earthiness of Whitley's past returns in "Can't Get Off," a lumbering rock tune with blues roots. Whitley's sassy vocals draw strength into the phase-shifting guitar figures, his falsetto-laced lines yielding to growled passages, the confessional lyrics secondary to the art of his singing. "God Thing" approaches blues and folk with the same funk sensibility (and guitar supremacy) that marked Jimi Hendrix's music. A fine guitar solo in the middle of the tune shows what Din of Ecstasy could have been.

Instead, "God Thing" segues immediately into "Din," a grossly straight-ahead rock song that sees Whitley's expressive voice electronically "enhanced" and a drum part that is painfully straight and soulless. The lyrics are bitter and marked with, profanity, but there's no spicing up the gloss of the track.

Next, Whitley performs "New Machine" with just vocals and National steel guitar. It's delicious. The lyrics are upgraded too, depicting a bad love affair with images of broken-down engines, blankets under the night skies and gasoline trickling down her thigh. Then, aaiiiee! The record company presumably held Whitley and the band hostage and forced them to record an embarrassing song titled "Some Candy Talking." It's the only song on the album not written by Whitley and the band seems to try to play it as poorly as possible. Whitley drenches it in guitar feedback and wailing, but that can't hide the fact that it is a dreck of a song with none of the nuance and meanness of his own material.

"Guns & Dolls" and "WPL" (Wild Pagan Love) throw out a line to the drowning listener and suddenly the stuttering start of the record seems a bit more palatable. Things are looking up again, but Whitley has one more pratfall — a bonus track hidden after the few minutes of silence that follows the final track.

Granted, it's an irreverent jaunt with National steel guitar and wah guitar, but the use of gimmicks by this man just makes me sigh.