William Elliott Whitmore - Kilonova

by Kevin Orton Rating:7 Release Date:2018-09-07
William Elliott Whitmore - Kilonova
William Elliott Whitmore - Kilonova

The deep-voiced William Elliott Whitmore was fortunate enough to hitch a ride on the Alt-Country bandwagon in its heyday. What's more, he backed it up with real chops. If his meat and potatoes baritone is akin to many a male Country Music drawler, Whitmore has always sounded like the real deal.

On his latest, Kilonova, Whitmore gives his pen a rest and covers 10 songs that have influenced him. While one might not suspect him of being a Magnetic Fields fan, up first is a gorgeous, no nonsense version of Stephen Merritt’s ‘Fear Of Trains’. A song that sounds tailor-made for Whitmore. Where Magnetic Fields’ version has a hint of camp, Whitmore’s sincerity drives the song home. More ballsy is a cover of Johnny Cash’s  ‘Busted’. Singing a Cash tune is like trying to scale Everest. You may get to the top but someone’s already beaten you to the punch. Whitmore’s version seems to relish in its own ruggedness and has little agenda other than to have fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but next to the original, this version is nothing to write home about.

That isn’t the case with his take on Bad Religion’s, ‘Don’t Pray On Me’.  With nothing but his banjo for accompaniment, this has all the bite of a Woody Guthrie dustbowl ballad. Along with ‘Fear of Trains’ its one of the albums most successful efforts.

After three songs of sparse, banjo accompaniment, it’s almost jarring to hear electric guitar and backing vocals on ‘Hot Blue and Righteous’. Whitmore’s voice sounding soulful, at times bringing to mind the late great Willy DeVille. All I can say, ZZ Top have never sounded this good. It’s a gorgeous rendition and another among the album’s highlights.

However, Whitmore’s stab at another Cash classic falls flat. This version of ‘Five Feet High and Rising’ lacks the inspiration and drive of the original. A doomy version of Bill Wither’s, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ follows. The song has been covered so much, its almost cliché at this point. Whitmore’s rendition is heartfelt but offers nothing out of the ordinary.

Next up is ‘One Glass At A Time’, straight up Country delivered with little irony or bite. Whitmore laying on the hick drawl a bit too thick to be convincing. His take on Jimmy Driftwood’s ‘Run Johnny Run’ is far more successful with plenty of charm and vigor. Here Whitmore truly feels more at home.  A song that fits him like a glove. His acapella rendition of Dock Boggs’ ‘Country Blues’ however, is again a touch too mannered and imitative. Sounding more contrived than genuine.

By far the most self-consciously off the wall and ambitious choice is Captain Beefheart’s, ‘Bat Chain Puller’. Once again Whitmore falls prey to mimicry rather than rely on his own voice. The end result is something a bit too close to parody. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but as the adage goes, it gets you nowhere. The Captain simply can’t be out Captained. While a dissonant and unsettling end to this collection, it's also contrived. Kilonova works best when Whitmore is genuine. 

I love a good covers album, but if a vocalist isn’t endeavoring the make the song their own, what’s the point? Of course, Johnny Cash was an absolute genius at just that. ‘Hurt’, being a case in point. As much as Whitmore cites Cash as an influence, he could have taken a cue from the mighty Man in Black. While a noble effort, Kilonova’s highlights hint at what could have been if only Whitmore owned these songs more, rather than just pay his respects.

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