By: Sarah Hagerman
The arresting opening track on William Elliott Whitmore's latest offering Animals in the Dark (released February 27 on Anti- Records) snaps your ass awake like a teacher slapping your fingers with a ruler. So, no dreams about being a Viking for you - sit up straight and pay attention. The martial snare drum beat that ushers in "Mutiny" in the midst of a "sick, sick wind that's blowing 'round," calls for a tough staff change, with fists in lieu of pink slips:
Well the captain's been drinking below the deck
And this ship is way off course
I want to wrap my hands around his crooked neck
And throw him overboard
Whitmore further declares, in his towering voice that is absolutely stately, proudly humble origins and all, "I don't want to be safe/ I just want to be free/ And take back what these old devils have taken from me." Although the targets are doubtless the Bushies, he keeps the lyrics from namedropping and using signifiers that would tie this record down too specifically and retrograde it as time rolls on. Instead, it becomes a larger condemnation that brings to mind the Benjamin Franklin quote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," with our own complacency on trial alongside Captain Con. Songs like "Johnny Law" and "Old Devils" explore those themes further, and drop a few bombs on the boys in blue and the puppet masters pulling the strings. The devils Whitmore sings of in the latter are products of any era, "true right now like it was back then." We have goldfish-like memories concerning our own history in this country, but these past eight years were hardly the first time our civil liberties were severely threatened and it won't be the last.
Another thematic thread is the celebration of those who eke out a living in spite of the inevitable churning of power at the top, whether it's his own family history, where labor and struggle gave his stock character ("Hard Times"), the realities of being a working musician ("Lifetime Underground") or the folks at the shows who make it all worth it, even when one's mind is set on home ("Hell or High Water"). I spy a sing-along lyric in that last one:
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
Drink your glasses to the bottom
And listen to the howling dogs
And oh how it pleases me
To be in such company
And I'm so glad our paths have crossed
Now that's just a lovely sentiment, caught in the rims of sticky pint glasses, bowl resin and the community of friendship. Whitmore captures an emotional spark time and again on this record like he's clapped his hands over a firefly, distilling the results into pin-prick statements. Marked by broad, decisive strokes, simple but richly textured instrumentation and words in plain clothes that contain striking stitching in the details, there's straightforward beauty in his down home blues and an uncompromising punk rock soul.
The search for light in bleak times seems to be at its essence. "Good Day to Die" is hardly a downer in this respect, as Whitmore counts his blessings, while on "Hope for You," where he informs a "little sparrow" that "there is hope for you, there is hope for you/ But it's much too late for me," adding this bit of wisdom: "You have the choice to bend your ear/ And treat your fellow humans well." Beyond the devils in the dark whose narrow-minded visions beget big decisions at the expense of everyone and everything else on this planet, the hope for us still remains in that oft-repeated and rarely absorbed wisdom – be fundamentally decent to one another – 'cause we don't know how long we've got on this ride.
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