Music Reviews

posted: July 6, 2011

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Field Songs – William Elliott Whitmore Field Songs

Anti Records LP, CD
Field Songs – William Elliott Whitmore

While he’s only in his early 30s, singer-songwriter William Elliott Whitmore carries the burdens of a man twice his age.
His first three albums—Hymns for the Hopeless, Ashes to Dust and Song of the Blackbird—make up a gruesome trilogy, dense with banjo-driven funeral songs inspired by the deaths of both of his parents. Consumed with grief, he holed up on the family horse farm in Iowa and picked up his banjo, perhaps inspired by a quote from playwright Samuel Beckett, who famously said, “When you’re up to your neck in shit, the only thing left to do is sing.”

And boy could he. Blessed with the gravelly pipes of a mountain man, Whitmore crooned songs about digging his own grave in a voice that might have had Ralph Stanley watching the mail for legal documents requesting a paternity test. But while Blackbird closed the song-cycle on a hopeful note, equating birth and death with the natural circle of life on the farm, it also left a new question hanging in the air: What next?

Whitmore responded in 2009 with Animals in the Dark, an album that found him stretching himself both musically (“There’s Hope For You” flirted with Southern soul, while a rowdy chorus turned “Mutiny” into a drunken free-for-all) and thematically (like a folk singer in 1960s New York City, he packed his narratives with a range of scheming politicians, charlatans, and crooked cops).

With that in mind, Field Songs, his fifth proper release, initially sounds like a bit of a retreat. Again limiting himself to either guitar or banjo (rudimentary percussion—Stomping feet? Hands clapping?—accompanies the singer on just two tracks), Whitmore weaves together eight simple tales that seem almost weightless when measured against his early material. Now, this observation isn’t exactly a slight; the singer can’t always be expected to wield his banjo the way a gravedigger swings a pickaxe. But place “Bury Your Burdens in the Ground” (sample lyric: “If you got burdens, don’t carry them”) against the hole he grimly carves into the earth on his debut’s “Diggin’ My Grave,” and the difference becomes immediately evident.

But if anyone deserves a degree of contentment, it’s Whitmore, and once the initial shock wears off (is that…is that…hope?), a rather pretty folk album begins to emerge. Littered with field recordings of singing birds and chirping crickets, it often sounds as though Whitmore set up his recorder on the back porch, strapped on his banjo, and started singing. Songs touch on immigration (“Get There From Here”), the enduring nature of the human spirit (“We’ll Carry On”) and, on “Let’s Do Something Impossible,” even love. Of course, old soul that he is, Whitmore reaches back to a 1937 prison break (“We’ll escape from Alcatraz/Just like Theodore Cole”) to illustrate his point about overcoming insurmountable odds.

Elsewhere, Whitmore touches on familiar themes (see: death), albeit from an entirely different perspective. On “Everything Got Gone,” he picks up his acoustic, surveys the landscape, and sees finality in everything from the worn-down farmhouse just “a mile down the gravel road” to the tree precariously clinging to the riverbank. Perhaps surprisingly, he sounds okay with this as he sings “I’m just here for a little while” like a man unafraid of whatever it is that comes next.

Whitmore once sang “I don’t want you to know the pain I’ve known,” but by the time he rolls into the meditative, album-closing “Not Feeling Any Pain,” it’s undeniably clear that he’s finally made hard-won, long-overdue peace with the world

–Andy Downing