It’s four days until the big Frank & Friends 10k Swim for Strong Kids, so this evening I finally shaved the winter beard and trimmed the frizzly “Doc Emmett Brown” hairstyle as part of my annual “so long indoor off-season, hello outdoors!” tradition. And tonight, that Bring-on-the-Springtime tradition includes steak, a Boneshaker IPA, and the ‘Radium Death‘ album by William Elliott Whitmore.
I love when SRCvinyl has a sale in preparation for the big Record Store Day celebration on April 22nd.
That usually means big saving for me and this is one of those savings.
Whitmore is well-known for his raw, poetic, rural folk albums. On all of them, his rough-hewn growl of a voice is skeletally accompanied by only his banjo or acoustic guitar. Whitmore’s always played in punk clubs, and he’s claimed bands from the Jesus Lizard and Bad Brains to the Minutemen as influences on his own music. It’s been somewhat difficult to hear that influence until now.
‘Radium Death‘ still contains Whitmore’s hard folk roots. A third of these songs find him solo, spitting out his love for the land and his rage at those who would destroy it and his way of life. The rest range from rock & roll and folk-rock to country songs that find him backed by a varying assortment of musicians who played live in the studio.
Recorded over two years, Whitmore drove two hours from his Lee County farm to Iowa City to work with producer Luke Tweedy. They cut various versions of tunes and decided on the arrangements as they went. Whitmore’s strengths as a songwriter have always been in very simple, direct melodies and in lyrics that cut through the veneer and get to the soul of things. The larger – but by no means excessive – arrangements underscore their poignancy. And, while always strong, his delivery just roars here at times. Check the blistering, clattering opener ‘Healing to Do‘, which pairs the heat of a punk band with the blues moan in Them’s ‘Gloria‘. ‘A Thousand Deaths‘, played solo on a slightly out of tune electric guitar, is a garage folk song worthy of Phil Ochs. ‘Don’t Strike Me Down‘ is a blistering, full-band country boogie with a pumping, upright piano balancing the distorted guitar and drum attack with a full “ooh-ooh” female backing chorus to add some sweetness to the sweat. ‘Can’t Go Back‘ is a country waltz complete with pedal steel and a walking bassline.
The solo work isn’t gone, however – the ragged tenderness in ‘Civilizations‘ and the agony in ‘Have Mercy‘ find Whitmore importing his lived-in, time-worn wisdom with only his banjo and guitar, respectively. ‘Ain’t Gone Yet‘ closes the set as a humanist, honky tonk gospel-waltz. A backing chorus, electric piano, and shuffling drums amid the acoustic and electric guitars bear witness to Whitmore’s paean to his presence in the moment as a man on earth, and his belief he will return to it, not Jesus.
In my opinion, the album finds Whitmore at his songwriting and singing best and it’s pretty freakin’ awesome!
As is the steak, the beer, and not having to pick off little bits of food that have have gotten stuck to my face.
And what do you know, it also has little birdies in the corners of the front cover so HRH can even claim this as part of her collection of “Bird” albums because, you know, that’s a thing now (click HERE).