Soft Dangerous Shores is something of a companion piece to Chris Whitley's last album with a band, Hotel Vast Horizon, right down to the closing piece played virtually solo on banjo. If there's anything more haunting than silence and space, as on the ever so sparse predecessor, it's the judicious use of effectsand that's what's at work on this dense-sounding disc.
The Texas native's third full-length CD in less than two years is an object lesson in how "you can't go home again." Produced by Malcolm Burn, with whom the iconoclastic musician recorded his debut, the popular Living with the Law, Soft Dangerous Shores bears some similarity to that mainstream success, but it is not by any means a sequel to it.
That's in large part because Chris Whitley is not the same singer, songwriter, or musician he was back in 1991. He does not write songs like the title tune to his major label debut of "Big Sky Country, but more impressionistic, blues-rooted tunes like "End Game Holiday and "Breath of Shadows. And though Whitley's idiosyncratic guitar work becomes another component of the sound, his music nevertheless has a poetry at its heart that lends itself to the cinematic production approach. Malcolm Burn builds upon the songs themselves and the performances, such as "Fireroad (For Two), to creates a vivid sense of time and place on the tracks that become an aural equivalent of time lapse photography.
An almost palpable sense of motion at work on the title song may best illustrate the importance of Burn's first-person participation in this project. Credited with keyboards, programming, and processing, his collaboration with Whitley and his band expands upon the material in a way even more effective than the sound of Rocket House in 2001. For instance, the shadowy surroundings of "Valley of Innocents is as vivid as its lyrics, while "Furious Angels" has a balmy feel to it that's somewhat less intense than the rest of the album.
Speaking of which, the multilayered textural production wouldn't work if compositions such as "Day is Long, and even more so "City of Women, didn't lend themselves to such treatment and actually inspire the sound itself. Yet it's not just a testament to the strength of the songs, but also the presence of Chris Whitley and his band (as on the previous album, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht) that the concept works overall. "Last Million Miles illustrates how it can fail when it submerges the musicians and the music becomes an electronic sonic sludge. This is where a succinct tune of Whitley's, recorded with no frills, would have been ideal.
If you liked Whitley's Hotel Vast Horizon, chances are you will like Soft Dangerous Shores to the same extent, with the same minor reservations. It has its mood but would benefit from an ever-so-slight interruption now and then, if only to confirm how effective that atmosphere actually is.
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Personnel: Chris Whitley: guitars and vocals; Heiko Schramm: basses;
Matthias Macht: drums and percussion; Malcolm Burn: keyboards, programming and
processing; Trixie Whitley: vocals; Dan Whitley: electric guitar; Aaron Comess: drums.