Chris Whitley's debut album, "Living with the Law," isn't like most rock music these days. Sure, it draws from the same sources and uses the same instruments, but his music produces an entirely different effect. Other singers may be content with making you move your body, but what Whitley wants is to stir your soul.
That's not an easy thing to do, obviously, but so far, Whitley's success has been heartening. "Living with the Law" is already one of the most critically acclaimed debuts of the year, and with the singer on tour with Tom Petty (they play the Capital Centre this evening), he has an excellent opportunity to expand his audience.
Still, after 13 years as an unknown, the 31-year old Whitley finds the sudden swirl of attention kind of confusing. "I don't really know what to make of it, exactly," he admits over the phone from New York. "I'm just being led along."
How Whitley got to where he is today is easy enough to explain. A natural nomad, he was born in Texas, spent some of his youth in Mexico and some in Vermont, and his musical career has taken him from New York (where he started singing 13 years ago) to the Netherlands (where he refined his craft) to New Orleans (where he recorded his album).
How he developed his sound is another matter. Some of what Whitley does involves memory, such as hearing the echo of rural bluesmen in the dry whine of his slide guitar on "Call from Leavenworth," or recognizing the hillbilly abandon with which his voice leaps into falsetto during "Poison Girl."
"The stuff is kind of a mixture," he admits. "It's kind of rural blues in a way, but it's not really traditional at all. It's sort of beyond blues. I've just in the last few years found something that feels like a natural area for me to write in, and that also excites me."
Whitley's songs are also long on atmosphere, conveying a strong sense of place, whether literally, as with the use of Montana in "Big Sky Country," or figuratively, like with the abstracted Southwest evoked in "Dust Radio." But certain elements recur in either case, in particular a sense of open spaces and desolate countryside.
"I just have a tendency toward earthier things, to plains and desert," Whitley says. "It's almost spiritual for me, because I think different people have different elements; some are drawn to watery things, and I'm sort of earthier.
"Plus it feels natural in the sound of the music I like to hear myself make," he adds. "It relates to where I'm writing from -- sort of earth level stuff, you know? Like street level or whatever."
Chris Whitley performs tonight at 8 along with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Capital Centre. Call 481-6000.