A Review by Ken Meisel - Author & Poet
JC Whitelaw’s new release, entitled “Hammered,” knocked my socks
off. At the surface, the record is a solid mix of rock and roll, blues
and Celtic Soul, with lyrics that argue the merits or pitfalls at play in
love, loss, desire, death and renewal but, after deeper immersion in
the album’s twelve tracks, one begins to hear that Whitelaw’s new
record’s real and true enterprise – its real and true arc – is the rough
and tumble landscape of human feeling. It never falters from this
Frankly, it’s been a damn long time since I’ve heard music written and
performed from deep inside the body like this, from the inside, out.
It’s as if the compositions are born from a deeply bound-up urgency
that insists and demands to break free. And, through the frenzied
articulation of the music, there is an acute burning, not unlike grief
that expresses itself from shock into torment and rage, and then into
the swirling delirium of an anguish that breaks, like a crested
emotional wave, into a finalized resolution. To be more exact, the
record, like a full-on encounter with the temperament of grief and
mourning, rages; it remembers, it grieves and laments; and then it
finally settles into reconciliation.
The title, Hammered, upon deeper reflection, seems to connote the
visceral experience one feels when struck by and overwhelmed by the
entirety of an emotional amplitude experience. Indeed, this whole
record is about emotional amplitude. Its entire psychological
character resembles emotional amplitude, i.e., the immense breadth,
width and magnitude prevalent in all human emotional love and loss
If I knew nothing at all about the contextual circumstances of this
record, including the murder of Whitelaw’s father and the emotional
jeopardy, uncertainty and renewal that follows such tragedy and loss,
I’d still conclude – and I do – that this is an artist preoccupied with
the impressionistic, inner landscape of emotion. The record’s
preoccupation centers on the way that emotion, interiorized and
bound, breaks free – through a deliberate elliptical lyricism and a
vigorous landscape of vibrant textures that show rather than tell or
literalize how emotion is, well, nothing more than pure energy-inmotion.
How do Whitelaw and this exceptional band (The Disciples) pull this off?
Well, Whitelaw’s lyrical disposition, his musical temperament and the
vocalized delivery of these twelve songs – gathered like a collection
of dive bar conversational commentaries – ranges in quality from
addled, chagrined, jittery, defiant, mischievous, emotionally
affectionate, outraged, panicky, unnerved, vexed, quarrelsome,
passionate, playful, zealous, spiteful, mournful and grateful. It’s as if
each tune is a conversational prop, featuring ardent, charged feeling.
Whitelaw’s written lyrics and the expressive vocals in these songs feel
to me like he’s talking from the center of his body, right to the
listener. It’s like he’s talking and insisting himself out of a corner.
He’s full of spit and vinegar, a honey drop of lust, and a spoonful of
the Holy Spirit. He’s quarreling and hugging his way out of
emotional pain. The result is intimate, uncensored, and, well, addled
and damn full of amplitude.
Whitelaw’s distinctive guitar work – replete with its writhing,
ruminative, reminiscent, ecstatic and, at times grandly melodic and
exalted qualities – functions over and over again as a reinforcing
leitmotif for the impressionistic character so prevalent in bewildered
emotion and grief: a grief, mind you, under-cut with fury and sorrow,
with lamentation, frenzy, delirium and love.
The result is an agonized and yet jubilant music that excites the listener as it lifts and falls into reckless delirium, into despondency, and into abandon; and to listen to it is truly invigorating. It’s exhausting and yet captivating. It thrills while it stills. I say this because human emotion is never a steady, homogenous experience. It’s uneven, volatile, tempestuous, herkyjerky, disruptive, and disorderly. Whitelaw understands this in his body, and the music on this record conveys it.
Even a few of the particular songs on this album, at times long and extended, function at their crux point not so much as singular delivered tunes but rather as dynamic emotional landscapes where the heart’s kaleidoscope of emotions – expressed through potently charged if tormented guitar work, rousing vocals (at times sounding utterly enraged, pleading, defiant, sorrowed and poignant) and a stealthy, if agitated and
propulsive drumming and percussive backbeat – seem to writhe and
leap from obscured production values lurking in there like emergent
apparitions or shadows, and the emotional values soar in and through
these songs; it’s as if the songs become – at their very essence, at
their very core – slices of physicalized emotional intelligence.
Perhaps that’s why it caught me to the quick: It’s riveting to listen to
because it’s so anti-intellectual. It’s so physical. Whitelaw and The Disciples succeed and excel on this record because the recorded music – its emotional buoyancy, its occasional brassiness and brawn, it’s
mournful elegiac bagpipes, its threnodic bass lines that snake in and
out of the songs’ expositions and pull and tug at the musical refrains,
its anguished hymnal keyboard lines that surf, crest, color and tint the
higher musical engravings of certain songs and its excitable time
tables of percussion that clatter and thwack – is based, without any
negotiated compromise that I can hear, in an undaunted physical
vibrancy. The whole enterprise here is physical. It’s as if the body’s
whole vehement emotional process were held back and contained,
and then released and liberated – through the impassioned landscapes
that these songs provide.
So, what else to conclude about it. Perhaps this: if emotional tumult –
whether activated by love, loss, tragedy or death – is really about the
vigorous, heated, forcefulness of passion and amplitude (which are
arguably the instruments of the heart’s protest and its rapprochement
process making a peace with unpredictable fate) – then this record’s
vehemence, its total physical soundscape of noise, hammered out
through 12 songs whose topics cover love, lust, murder, desire, time
and peace, is like a year long journey through emotional amplitude.
To listen to it, from beginning to end, is to drop into the body’s
emotional timetable where the heart, harrowed and strung up like a
bird in the body’s mine shaft, exalts anyway: it flies free of what
endeavors to constrain or to imprison it. The result – what this
record actually achieves in its effect – feels a lot like real life to me.
Ken Meisel, 2012 Kresge Arts Literary Fellow and the author of
Mortal Lullabies, Beautiful Rust, and The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door