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Chris Whitley: Hotel Vast Horizon

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Album: Hotel Vast Horizon
Label: Messenger

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Chris Whitley never treads the same ground twice: His albums each take a different instrumental and tonal approach, from the stripped-down voice-and-guitar setup of Dirt Floor to the muscular electric rock of Din Of Ecstasy to the electronic underpinnings of his most recent previous album, Rocket House. Now back on an independent label after a brief stint with Dave Matthews' vanity imprint, Whitley again varies his pitch with Hotel Vast Horizon, his first record to pair barren acoustic work with a small backing band. Given that Whitley's most agreed-upon classics–1991's Living With The Law and 1998's Dirt Floor–distill his music to its rawest essentials, Hotel Vast Horizon looks enormously promising on paper. Unfortunately, the excitement ends there: These 10 new tracks sound uncharacteristically lifeless, bogged down in slogging mid-tempo arrangements that don't exactly complement Whitley's world-weary vocal delivery. (His accomplished rhythm section, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht, is given little to do but jog in place.) Throughout Hotel Vast Horizon, the songs beg for either instrumental heft or a bare-bones approach, and by meeting in the middle, they barely even register. Fans long ago figured out that Whitley's creative restlessness means both hits and misses, but rarely has it produced so little dynamic or dramatic tension in the process.