These days, only the most isolated cultures live sans electronics, so the notion that folk music requires au naturale acoustics ain't exactly… well, folksy anymore. Keyboard sounds and tape loops lurk in the darkness behind Chris Whitley's stark-as-midnight guitar on Soft Dangerous Shores, having nothing to do with hybridizing genres and everything to do with reflecting an environment crowded by highways and digital displays.
"Fireroad (For Two)" opens with a concise mission statement — a simple bass-snare beat and looped guitar, suddenly overwhelmed by the strum of an acoustic guitar. Whitley's ringing chords and string scrapes build into a background chorus over the course of the song, as his strained vocals yearn for escape. The title track stands at the crossroads between the Mississippi delta and British new wave, somehow lending a bluesy tinge to a backing track of synth washes and drum loops that could pass for a particularly melancholy Squeeze.
"As Day Is Long" employs a cavernous echo to blow a spare blues-rock tune into a cathedral-filling swirl of sound, feedback and wah-wah guitar combined with tape loops bubbling under the surface.
A menacing 80s-horror-movie-soundtrack synth drone and programmed worldbeat percussion sets an ever darker tone for "City of Women," the occasional electronic buzz and barely-heard whistling setting a film noir tone. Whitley's meandering guitar sounds like it's being heard through a wall, errant sounds drifting into the street. The directness of his vocals is surprising on top of all of this misty atmosphere, and makes the song a particularly urgent plea
"Her Furious Angels" shapes Whitley's gravelly falsetto into a reasonable facsimile of a soul crooner, at times resembling Seal. Put on the proper pop gloss and it could be a hit. The mood suddenly shifts into a gutbucket psychedelia for "Last Million Miles," a funky bass line underlying a shimmering faux sitar trip. The album closes with the almost back-to-basics "Breath of Shadows," with Whitley accompanying himself on a banjo. It is for the most part a simple singer-songwriter track, before a high-toned keyboard buzzes in like a fly in the ear.
Forsaking the country influences that have marked previous releases, Chris Whitley's 12th CD is a decidedly urban affair, a constant pulse and reverb conjuring the cramped spaces and constant tension of city life. Whitley's lyrics reach out to others, though seemingly from behind the glass of a high-rise while traffic rushes obliviously by far below. Americana, indeed.