Coming Around on Jim White

by Stephen Deusner on February 16, 2011

Jim White (photo: Robin Howard)

More than a decade ago, I reviewed Jim White’s second album, No Such Place, for the Memphis Flyer. I praised his ambition, writing that “White is obviously—and admirably—grasping for something new and meaningful, a revival of certain Southern musical traditions through modern production quirks.” That was about it for praise. I was not kind.

“White plays dress-up,” I went on, “wearing the clothes of a Southern storyteller like a Halloween costume,” before concluding, “Ultimately White intends No Such Place to be a work of folk art. But folk art is by nature outsider art, and White’s songs are too calculated, his sound too self-conscious and too synthesized, to be organic or natural.” I gave it a lowly C-.

Since then, my opinion of White and his music has softened up. Drill a Hole in the Substrate and Tell Me What You See (2004) and Transnormal Skiperoo (2007) sounded less self-consciously ornate and more laidback—evocative of a real South instead of a storybook version of the place. Even so, No Such Place hung over my mind like a shadow, so I was curious to give it another listen, nearly ten years to the day after its release.

It took a lot of searching to locate the original promo CD, and when I did, I saw that it bore the effect of the years rather harshly. The jewel case was cracked and the paper insert had yellowed at the corners, but that seemed appropriate for a Jim White album. The music itself is similarly dated: traditional folk and blues welded to distorted vocals, wandering synths, ambient noise, processed sounds, and turntable scratches. I didn’t note it in my review, but I can clearly hear now how the album is directly descended from the 1990s, particularly the folk/hip-hop syntheses of Beck’s first two albums. With their shuffling beats and flashy studio techniques, “10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road” and “Hey! You Going My Way????” are frozen in amber, fossils from another musical micro-era.

But there’s a redeeming and inquisitive quality to White’s songwriting here. On “The Wound That Never Heals,” about a woman doomed to perpetuate the same violence she suffered as a child, White never excuses her actions but constantly interrogates her, as if trying to accrue some empathy for the character. And the elegiac “Corvair” deploys that universal white-trash signifier—the car on cinder blocks in the front yard—as a totem of a trapped life. “It’s a home for the birds now,” he sings ruefully. “It’s no longer a car.” There’s everywhere to go and no way to get there. It’s affecting.

Still, No Such Place also contains cartoon gothic moments like the faux gospel “God Was Drunk When He Made Me” and the oppressively atmospheric “The Wrong Kind of Love,” which features questionable lyrics like “There’s nothing prettier than a pretty girl digging a heart-shape hole in the ground.” Hearing these songs reawakened my skepticism of White, but also suggested that there is a certain power in what I hear as his flaws. By embracing the modern so indiscriminately, he avoids the usual, deadening reverence for the past and challenges the notion that old forms are sacrosanct. In fact, they survive only insofar as they can be updated and mutated, again and again, with no regard for time or former tastes. In that regard, No Such Place is a powerful reminder of the endless possibilities for reviving and rethinking music. Maybe I’ll check in with it again in another ten years.

Jim White appears at Reynolds Theater on Feb. 18 with the South Memphis String Band, and old-time string-band-style supergroup featuring Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, Jimbo Mathus, & Luther Dickinson (check out this recent video of them playing “Bootlegger’s Blues”). Consult the show’s Duke Performances page for tickets and more information.

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