Recording information: Flat Black Studios, IO.
William Elliott 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. Radium Death finds Whitmore at his songwriting and singing best. That said, his successful indulgence in rock & roll's various forms makes one wish he had just put the entire album on stun. ~ Thom Jurek