William Elliott Whitmore: Radium Death

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William Elliott Whitmore
Radium Death
(Anti-)
3.5  out of 5 stars

The surface-level view of William Elliott Whitmore is that of a midwestern folkie, having grown up in Iowa on his family’s farm. In fact, his authentic, earthy American roots are a defining quality in his music; his soulful vocals and simple plucks of banjo or acoustic guitar are all he’s ever really needed to convey a direct, emotional message of darkness and loss. But if he’s an earnest, heartland troubadour, he’s one that’s always had one foot in the world of punk rock, having grown up listening to bands like Bad Brains and The Minutemen. He’s toured with the likes of Salem hardcore outfit Converge, and he’s covered Bad Religion. Deep within that haunting, old-fashioned sound is the spirit of a plugged-in punk rocker, eager and ready to make some noise.

That’s never been more apparent than on Whitmore’s sixth album, Radium Death. It’s the loudest and most raucous of his albums to date, and he shows that hand early, tearing into “Healing to Do” with a simple, albeit distorted chord progression set against a galloping drum beat. It’s not a dramatic change by any means — turn down the overdrive, and let the drums fade out, and what you’re left with is a song that could have been on 2011’s Field Songs, or any of his previous records. But when he unleashed a throaty screech in the song’s final minute, Whitmore makes it perfectly clear that a mighty beast has been set free.

It’s to Whitmore’s credit, then, that he can transition back to a rustic folk ditty without raising an eyebrow. The song that immediately follows, “Civilizations” is a stark bluegrass jaunt that finds Whitmore examining ideas of personal freedom and community, returning to the phrase, “Don’t mind me/ I’m just livin’ here.” And “Go On Home,” though electric, has the simple melancholy of any of the highlights on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

And yet, when Whitmore cranks the volume and builds up some momentum, he’s committed to rocking out, channeling Uncle Tupelo on “A Thousand Deaths” or Lucero on the outstanding “Don’t Strike Me Down.” On Radium Death, however, these only consume part of the album, like punctuation marks after passages of stripped-down, simple folk. Whitmore might only occasionally let that rock ‘n’ roll animal out from time to time, but that scarcity — coupled with excellent pacing — is exactly what makes it so exciting.