William Elliott Whitmore’s music came to fruition within the confines of dingy bars and clubs, embraced within the Midwest punk scene before the majority of blues, folk and alt-country fans took notice. Roll on to 2015 and he has been around for a good few years now, with Radium Death being his latest studio release. This album sees Whitmore pay homage to his punk roots, building on the sparse instrumentation which has characterised previous releases and generally spending more time “plugged in” than in the past. Don’t get me wrong - this is still the same Whitmore that recorded 2011’s Field Songs, or the brilliant Animals in the Dark, or any of his folk and blues heavy releases. It’s just that this time round, an extra element has been thrown into the mix.
This is obvious from the record’s opener ‘Healing to Do’, the driving guitar riff and rockabilly-esque sounds of which suits Whitmore’s life-roughened voice to perfection. The howl which drives the song to its climax is his version of Shane MacGowan’s unmistakeable scream which was one of the sounds that would come to define The Pogues. ‘Civilizations’, the next track on the album, is another matter; a banjo-led piece of bluesy folk, it reminds us that the artist can take the energy which drives songs like ‘Healing to Do’ and imbue slower-paced songs with the same passion and immediacy. This means that, for example, he can meld the dreamlike country soundscape of ‘Can’t Go Back’ perfectly with the following track, the Sun Records-influenced drinking anthem ‘South Lee Country Brew’.
In exploring different musical styles underneath the umbrella of his own unmistakeable style, Whitmore’s music on Radium Death perfectly encapsulates the connections between old and new - the ways in which the stripped down vibrancy of early blues and folk influenced the back to basics approach of punk rock, which in turn influenced the alt-country movement and its further muddying of the waters. Of course, once we strip away the musical labels, we are left with a selection of brilliantly crafted songs which grab the listener’s attention either singly or as a whole. From the raucous ‘Healing to Do’ to the introspective folk of ‘Civilization’, the toe-tapping ‘Trouble in Your Heart’ to the brawling electric blues of ‘A Thousand Deaths’ (which will undoubtedly bring to mind Wrecking Ball-era Bruce Springsteen), we get the sense of a songwriter who has lived what he is singing about and is passionate about his craft. Radium Death shows a musician fully reaching his artistic stride, and it is bloody brilliant to hear.