CD Reviews - William Elliott Whitmore, Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers

William Elliott Whitmore has much in common with Tom Waits.
William Elliott Whitmore has much in common with Tom Waits. (By Chris Strong)
Friday, March 13, 2009

WILLIAM ELLIOTT WHITMORE "Animals in the Dark" Anti- SAMANTHA CRAIN & THE MIDNIGHT SHIVERS "Songs in the Night" Ramseur

"IT WAS A good day to die," William Elliott Whitmore sings on his new album, "Animals in the Dark." "It's a perfect day for dying," Samantha Crain sings on her new album, "Songs in the Night."

"The old devils are at it again," Whitmore adds, while Crain counters with, "Devil'll meet you at the willow tree."

Their willingness to confront death and devils, and even embrace them, marks these two singer-songwriters as members of the Gothic Americana movement, the fusion of the outsider perspective of such songwriters as Tom Waits with the pre-Elvis rural sounds of bands such as the Stanley Brothers. With their unconventional voices, minimalist arrangements and vivid lyrics, Whitmore and Crain largely avoid the movement's usual self-indulgence and do justice to their role models.

Whitmore, who still lives on his family's farm in Lee County, Iowa, has a gravelly Waits-like voice, and he rewrites Waits's "Shiver Me Timbers" as "Mutiny," a sailing-ship allegory for an America gone off course. Backed only by a marching drum corps, Whitmore implores his fellow sailors in a raspy, rousing bellow to join him in a violent mutiny. On "Johnny Law," Whitmore tells the story of an unjustified arrest while he chops away at an acoustic guitar, Woody Guthrie-like, in a hillbilly two-step. When he describes the "Hard Times" that have afflicted every generation in his family, he does so with high and lonesome mountain harmony.

Crain, a 22-year-old Choctaw Indian from Shawnee, Okla., boasts a twangy, high-pitched soprano and a fondness for impressionist verse. Backed by her tasteful folk-rock band, the Midnight Shivers, the singer-guitarist creates an ominous soundscape of moody guitars and notes bent sharp. She opens her first full-length album, to be released April 28, with the lines "I will give into the dark clouds, and I will sing with the fog in my throat." Her voice is quite clear, but she gives into darkness as she sings about fevers, pay cuts, loneliness, wounds, beasts, floods and J.D. Salinger.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing today at DC9 (202-483-5000, Show starts at 7 p.m.

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