Picks and Pans Review: Perfect Day

UPDATED 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Chris Whitley (Valley)

After allowing his inner Hendrix to come out to play, loudly, on his aptly named Din of Ecstasy in 1995, Whitley returned to his own brand of acoustic blues on 1997's Dirt Floor, a CD that seemed as haunted as a Delta graveyard. Both albums showcased Whitley's gifts as a guitarist, singer and lyricist. Here the 39-year-old Texan concentrates on his most expressive instrument, his voice. Sounding like Chet Baker singing Robert Johnson, Whitley gives minimalist, jazz-flavored treatments to 11 blues, folk and rock tunes—some well-known, some eccentric, all thickly atmospheric and bristling with sharp imagery and surprising vocal twists.

With Billy Martin on upright bass and drummer Chris Wood (both of the jazzy jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood), Whitley bookends the album with two of Bob Dylan's wildly offbeat love songs, "Spanish Harlem Incident" (from 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan) and "4th Time Around" (from Blonde on Blonde). In between comes a spooky version of "Smokestack Lightning," which Whitley and Co. somehow make sound both swampy and industrial, Hendrix's lyrical "Drifting" and Johnson's exquisitely tortured "Stones in My Passway." On the Doors' "Crystal Ship," Whitley's voice morphs from a desolate bluesman's cry to a moaning croon.

Bottom Line: Blues, smoldering and incandescent

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