Composed entirely of covers, Perfect Day is Chris Whitley’s fifth studio album, reuniting him with Craig Street, who produced Dirt Floor. The album covers songs from musicians as diverse as Lou Reed (title track), Bob Dylan, The Doors, and bluesmen Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. Chris teamed up with Billy Martin and Chris Wood (two-thirds of Medeski, Martin & Woods), whom one reviewer described as “shadow-box[ing] with him, rarely settling into a groove but intensifying the spookiness with every well-chosen lick.”
Asked “Why an album of covers?” Chris replied, “it just came together. It was sort of fortuitous, where the producer approached me and brought in Billy and Chris. We’ve known each other for a while and we just did it for the hell of it.” [Jambands].
“For the hell of it.” Quite the inspiration for a CD that music critics have called “sheer illumination” [Joy Sculnick, NY Times], “hauntingly minimalistic treatments” [Steve Huey, All Music Guide], “thickly atmospheric and bristling with sharp imagery and surprising vocal twists” [People Magazine], “inspired,” “sublime interpretations of influences from Howlin’ Wolf to Jimi Hendrix” [Billboard], and an “amazing exercise in quiet intensity” [NY Times].
To help narrow his selection of songs to cover, Chris decided to do only love songs: “That’s when it jelled, because a theme gives it pertinence, helps me to edit out. I had to have a picture of where it was coming from” [unsourced interview from 9x]. Chris’ statement, included on the CD insert, beautifully expresses why he finds love songs so inspiring.
What seems to have most amazed the critics was Chris’ original and deeply personal interpretations of these songs:
- “The combination of Martin and Wood’s idiosyncratic, minimal rhythm section and Whitley’s subtly soulful phrasing and guitar work turns familiar tunes such as The Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” and Lou Reed’s title track into whole other songs — very close in spirit to acoustic blues but filtered through Whitley’s unique sensibility. Interpretation is about putting your own emotional twist on others’ material, and Whitley gets twisted in all the right ways on Perfect Day.” [The Morning Call]
- “Whitley internalizes each of these love songs so thoroughly that they sound like originals; he rarely plays the melodies straight, preferring to dart around them with his parched vocals and sparse guitar riffs.” [ChiTrib]
- “Much can be learned about Whitley from Perfect Day, his 2000 release of cover songs. He interprets a variety of artists including Howlin’ Wolf, Lou Reed, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. Each selection seeks to strip down its original version to its starkest beginnings.” [NYTimes]
- “As anyone who heard his haunting remake of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ on the live disc knows, this singer/songwriter has an exceptional talent for interpreting the songs of others. And Perfect Day is that rare thing – a covers album that ups the ante on the art of the originals. …. Whitley makes everything his own.” [Billboard]
- “Like many things in modern culture …, contemporary blues artists sometimes fall short of offering a truly distinctive voice. It’s as if many blues musicians replicate tradition without connecting to any real story or narrative. This often results in passable, though soulless, covers … that lack a true sense of time and place. Guitarist Chris Whitley avoids these pitfalls on his album of covers, Perfect Day.” [Jazziz]
- “Here the 39-year-old Texan concentrates on his most expressive instrument, his voice. Sounding like Chet Baker singing Robert Johnson, Whitley gives minimalist, jazz-flavored treatments to 11 blues, folk and rock tunes—some well-known, some eccentric, all thickly atmospheric and bristling with sharp imagery and surprising vocal twists.” [People Magazine]
- “Mr. Whitley’s eerie, tender voice dominates, often obscuring his fleet guitar and the rhythm section’s delicate rumble. What emerges is a portrait of introspection that recalls other famous loners from Nick Drake to Chet Baker.” [NYTimes]
Achieving that degree of originality was a long-time goal for Chris. In an early interview, he commented that “I got more from the soul through what they were doing. I’d never try to emulate Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix or Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. I’d always felt kind of limited, but I didn’t pick heroes that I could learn a song note for note from.” [Cincinnati Post] In a 2000 interview for Jambands, Chris elaborated:
JB- How did you strike a balance between consciously emulating the original performers’ versions versus defining these songs on your own terms?
CW- That’s why I avoided covers for years. At first I was trying to do them like they were done. I love the way Dylan phrases stuff but I got up one night and decided to practice singing “Spanish Harlem Incident,” R&B-ish and it just felt cool. Then I went through this process of finding myself in this stuff which I had to do because they were all such great tunes. I realized the only way I could do them was not to emulate anyone or else they would sound too deliberated and I couldn’t feel them at all. I’ve never wanted to emulate people, I’ve just wanted to be inspired, influenced by them. If somebody really inspires you then it should be inspiring to do your own thing. That’s the most honest kind of nod or tribute. [Jambands]
In another interview, Chris commented that sounding “too deliberated” is what ruins a lot of blues covers: “’It seems like a lot of blues covers have ended up destroying them, and at moments I thought it was getting too brainy. I don’t understand people doing that. I just like the spirit and poetry of blues lyrics, how stripped down it is. With a song, not just a groove, I like to get my visceral self around it, to get physically attached.” Above all else, Chris wanted to avoid over-thinking the originals and to achieve that visceral connection that is the Holy Grail of his musicianship: “Whitley loathes structure. As he once told Salon, he loves kindred spirit Johnny Winter because [he] has never been bounded by riffs or scales, instead he just ‘blows it out.’ The same can be said of Whitley, …. Rather than follow the paint-by-numbers approach to writing, Whitley lets the world be his tableau.” [Houston Press]
In an extended interview for A-List, Chris discusses his choice of songs for PD, among a few other topics including his evolution as an artist and his struggle between being a commercial success and maintaining the honesty of his music.
Below are the original and Chris’ cover of each track on the CD. Listening to the original and then Chris’ interpretation is, I think, the best way to appreciate how thoroughly Chris made each song his own.
Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lightning & Spoonful
… making over ‘Smokestack Lightning’ as a fever dream. [Billboard]
Chris Whitley felt a deep affinity with this song: “My image of perfect lyric writing is “Smokestack Lightning” from Howlin’ Wolf. It says nothing. The lyrics have no figurative – they tell no story. But it feels totally like something. It’s just poetry – not high brow, not literary, not – it’s with the music, it’s poetry.” [talkin’ blues interview] I also feel that affinity; listening to the smoldering heat of Chris’s cover burns off my skin so that Chris’s extraordinary vocal can more easily penetrate my soul.
Willie Dixon (songwriter)/Howlin’ Wolf (performer): Spoonful
“Spoonful,” in particular, often seems on the verge of falling apart, as Whitley’s guitar slashes almost randomly over the rhythm section’s syncopations. But — perhaps like the singer himself — it somehow holds together in the face of desperation, which is a handy way to sum up the album’s impact as a whole. [All Music]
“I played with Willie Dixon when I was 18, down on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village.” [Chris in 9x]
Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield): She’s Alright
I still listen to old delta blues that I grew up on, I still listen to Muddy Waters … blues of a certain period you’re like: what kind of music is this? It’s so powerful … you’re like: what’s going on with that guy? [Poet Maudit]
I never studied any old blues records or slide guitarists. I listened to and have high regard for artists like Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, but I never tried to emulate them. [Dirty Work]
Chris appreciated the one-chord rural blues of musicians such as Muddy Waters, but did note that “the guys … didn’t really know about structure, like one record would be in just one key, like “E”, even old Muddy, each song is exactly the same ones with different lyrics, well, not everything, I’m exaggerating.” [Morning Coffee] Unlike the several other Waters’ tunes covered, mostly during the earlier years of his career, “She’s Alright” was a staple of Chris’s gigs, both before and after his recording it on Perfect Day.
Taj Mahal: Wild Ax Moan
Jimi Hendrix: Drifting
Nat King Cole: China Gate
He concedes that he didn’t have a stable of songs he’d been dying to record. That is, except for the dreamy, somber China Gate. “I wanted to do that for years.” [Jazziz]
Bob Dylan: Spanish Harlem Incident & 4th Time Around
Perfect Day also contains covers of two Bob Dylan songs. The album begins with Spanish Harlem Incident and ends with 4th Time Around. Says Whitley, “I grew up on Dylan…All of my life I’ve gone back and forth with him. He’s a genius. My favorite stuff of him is his most abstract, his most emotional…What I love about Dylan is, like, ‘4th Time Around,’ these really abstract things you don’t know what he’s getting at. They’re political only in their aesthetic, kind of in representation. But they’re not topical. They’re really like when he’s confused.” [Joy Sculnick, The New York Times]
“By the way, that Dylan tune, ‘Fourth Time Around’, that’s one of the most fucked up love songs ever – it’s like 3 or 4 songs in one, from all these different perspectives, with mystery and confusion and shit, and it’s just so subversive!” [Chris in 9x]
Spanish Harlem Incident
4th Time Around
The Doors: Crystal Ship
… giving the Doors’ ‘Crystal Ship’ the big-sky treatment [Billboard]
Lou Reed: Perfect Day
The most revelatory item … is the title track. Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ has never sounded so humane, so natural and touching, as in Whitley’s soulful reading. [Billboard]
“That song [Perfect Day] is so problematic – ‘you’re gonna reap what you sow’ – what does he mean by that? He releases everything, and then he gets back to his ‘miserable’ self.” [Chris in 9x]
We are lucky to have both the PD recording of this song and a demo that Danny Kadar shared on SoundCloud. Re the demo, Andi Lechner wrote in an ATCW comment: “It’s very interesting seeing Chris ‘searching his approach’ to the song: the demo is really cool, but somehow it doesn’t sound like Chris, simply he’s singing the line almost the same as Lou Reed does. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but the final version on the record is like: ‘Ah, that’s Chris Whitley’ after a few words.” Listen to Lou’s original and Chris’s demo and PD cover to see if you agree.
Chris’s PD cover:
Robert Johnson: Stones in my Passway