Great records always push a feeling onto the listener, and often that feeling is strongly associated with a time and place. Who can listen to a Beach Boys hit and not think of summer sun? Can’t you just smell the cigarettes and beer of CBGBs when listening to the frustration of the Ramones’ first few albums? Isn’t the mood of Professor Longhair’s rollicking piano enhanced by thoughts of the festivities of Mardi Gras day?
Chris Whitley’s remarkable Living With The Law not only set a gothic mood but cemented that with a definite sense of place: With his eerie falsetto and deft bluesy playing, it captured the feelings of a lonely and haunted drifter, running down a long dusty road always looking behind. His loud and murky follow up, Din Of Ecstasy, seemed to be set in the big city underbelly of the Velvets, but any mood he tried to create was overwhelmed by guitar pyrotechnics. Terra Incognito is somewhere in-between, and while it’s a big improvement over his previous album, it lacks the clarity that makes Living With The Law still vital six years after it was released.
Musically, Terra Incognito is a gas. Whitley’s falsetto sounds wonderfully spooky, and his slide playing threatens “As Flat As The Earth” and “Immortal Blues” with a naturally sinister feeling. The wall of feedback that was hidden below on Living With The Law and hovered above on Din Of Ecstasy is finally balanced, particularly on the catchy “Automatic” and the droning “Clear Blue Sky”, on which the guitars beautifully scream in the background. But the songs don’t reach as far as he does; you can smell the burning oil on “Gasket”, but nothing catches fire. “Power Down” is a muscular power-trio workout that refers to both Amelia Earhart and an alien nation without making much sense of either.
Whitley’s never been short of passion; even though parts of Din are nearly unlistenable, there was never any doubt he had something to say. On Terra Incognito, things are reversed. He might be drifting, but his music needs to be grounded.