William Elliott Whitmore – Animals in the Dark

William Elliott Whitmore - Animals in the Dark

William Elliott Whitmore - Animals in the Dark

I have tons of respect for William Elliott Whitmore. Over the course of three releases for Southern Records he poured his heart and soul into a crop of songs (mostly) about the loss of both parents. He has toured with everyone from the Pogues and Murder by Death to Clutch and Ten Grand. In some of those situations it has to be intimidating to be the guy who easily blends into the crowd at the show and then walks up on stage with nothing more than a banjo in hand. Winning over rock crowds with roots music isn’t always easy, but Whitmore has done it time and time again. Furthermore, William Elliott Whitmore is the real deal. Let’s not blather about where he was born and raised, because as much as place can shape the person there are so many other things that contribute to who one is. By real deal, I’d rather refer directly to Whitmore’s music – his seemingly effortless songwriting skills, adeptness with a banjo (or guitar), and that set of pipes that command notice. 

Animals in the Dark, Whitmore’s first release on ANTI- Records, finds the Iowan stepping away from his banjo on all but a few tracks. Instead, this album features Will and his guitar – often alongside other musicians – much more frequently. While Whitmore has recorded with others before, this foray into a fuller, more band-oriented sound is a first – though please don’t picture this as a plugged in rock album where the band will distract from the music. Whitmore’s voice and lyrics are still at the forefront and the additional musicians are a rather subtle addition. Another change on Animals in the Dark is the lyrical content. While much of his previous songwriting focused on loss and death, this release has a more political bent, as well as more glimmers of hope and happiness (and love!).

The martial drumbeat of “Mutiny” ushers in the album. This would have been a great pre-Obama rally cry, with lyrics like, “There’s a sick, sick wind that’s blowing round, and the captain’s got to go.” I can imagine the cheers this one must have received if previewed at Whitmore shows last Fall. Although some might complain about the timeliness of such as song released post-inauguration, I find it all the more cathartic. “Who Stole the Soul”, a beautiful acoustic number, points to the shame and embarrassment many Americans felt during the past eight years. “Johnny Law”, a toe-tapper about crooked cops, is one many of can relate to, but I find this to be the weakest song on the album, especially since it precedes the best track.

“Old Devils” was the lead single from Animals in the Dark and it’s no wonder. Everything coalesces perfectly here – Whitmore’s voice and lyrics, the guitar, the drums, etc. The upswell in the pace meets the lines “When I say devils you know who I mean, these animals in the dark. Malicious politicians with nefarious schemes, charlatans and crooked cops.” This is the song that will cause you to hit repeat multiple times, but the pack of songs which follow are equally as strong. “Hell or High Water” expresses Whitmore’s homesickness while “There’s Hope For You” sounds like a letter written from a dying parent to his young child.  “Hard Times” is another of the wonderful songs showcased on Animals in the Dark. This one offers a bit of a Whitmore family history lesson, but really focuses on the hard times that “made us” – any of us workaday stiffs can easily relate. 

Animals in the Dark is a natural progression from Whitmore’s previous stripped-down affairs. I get the feeling that Will has exorcized a few demons from his past, and has moved on to more external themes. I’ve always felt that William Elliott Whitmore’s music transcended mere genre classification and “for fans of” suggestions, and I stand by that sentiment today. While the music is based in more traditional styles (folk, blues, etc.), the voice and lyrics have much broader appeal. Will’s success playing shows with bands that couldn’t be much more different in style speaks to this. Don’t think because hardcore is your thing that you can’t love the punk appeal of this tattooed farmer.

ANTI- Records