William Elliott Whitmore
It’s springtime in Iowa and so William Elliott Whitmore, on his farm out in the wilds, is ready for planting; “Nature’s waking up after a long winter,” he says with a smile.
For Whitmore, it’s not just his quiet home life and the work that goes with it (which includes growing his own hops to make his own beer) that’s coming back to life, but so too his music. Not that it ever died, but with the imminent release of a new record from this punk-rock inspired roots-folkie, things are fresh, new and ready to go – and in more ways than one.
Whitmore’s last album was 2013’s Field Songs, a collection of songs very much in the vein of the record’s name. Much of his work thus far, from his 2001 debut, has been similar – vocal/banjo/guitar – but this one was even more stripped back, as sparse as it’s possible for an album to be.
With Radium Death though, his new one, things have changed. He still retains what he’s come to be known for, these bare, stark songs featuring just his deep, rough-hewn voice over a simple banjo strum, or guitar pluck, and it’s here that he shines. His a capella work in particular is hair-raising, and this style makes appearances on the new record.
However, it’s the addition of electric guitar on a number of tracks, along with a slew of musician friends coming in to help bulk out the sound, where things really take a left turn. Indeed, from the opening note of ‘Healing To Do’, with its bouncy electric strum and solid backbeat, Radium Death seems almost a complete antithesis of his last album.
“It’s nice to switch it up,” he laughs. “I had fun plugging in and being loud on a few songs, had fun bringing in some friends to play on the sessions, expand the sound a little bit. I’m real proud of it.”
And so he should be, Radium Death is a cracking album, a true slice of American folk, possessed of a pulsating realism that you don’t often find anymore. As to why now, after some seven album, it was time to change it up, well, he’s a punk rocker at heart.
“Well, I’ve just been feeling like I needed to get a little loud,” he says with another laugh. “It was just a feeling. The last record was more easy going, and so sometimes it’s just time to switch it up a little bit. You know, like a baseball pitcher, you don’t want to throw the same pitch twice in a row.”
“And I only know a few chords on the guitar, so there’s only so many ways to change things up for me, I’m kinda a two-trick pony,” he goes on. “So plugging in was a way to keep it sonically interesting, and yeah, it just felt like the time.”
Interesting as well on Radium Death is the clearer mix of genres. Where before Whitmore would cross styles as he felt he needed, with this new one things seem a bit more obvious – the rockabilly drive of ‘Don’t Strike Me’; the rock ‘n’ roll feel of opener ‘Healing To Do’; the straight country of ‘South Lee County’. All come together to form a whole, the album full to bursting with real, solid music, a real rootsy gem.
It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with next (I suggest a punk album – “Well, I feel like it’s slowly getting there,” he laughs), but in the meantime, with Radium Death, William Elliott Whitmore has crafted a fantastic record, one of which he should be proud, hands down.
Samuel J. Fell