Buy it on Amazon.
If you’ll step into the Jim White cult, I think I can reliably assure you — you’ll be in good company, but no one you know will be there.
An easy guarantee: Very few people even know who Jim White is, much less what he does and how he does it.
To a degree, that’s just fine for Jim White — he seems to record more to find out what he thinks and feels than to delight an audience.
And yet, thanks to his checkered history and a certain magic in the music, it’s hard not to be interested in him.
Must have it? I understand. [To download the song from Amazon, click here. To buy the CD it’s on, “Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See”, from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
White’s family moved to Florida when he was a kid, and he turned Fundamentalist. But he “felt more and more lost as a result of trying to draw closer and closer to God,” so in his mid-teens he started taking drugs. And then he became a fashion model. This often leads the young to doom, but not White: “At the age of 15, I had seen my friends turn into junkies and die, so it was no problem going into modeling and watching people doing cocaine and ecstasy and stuff, because I knew that they were just fooling themselves.”
Later he became a world-class surfer. He cut off most of two fingers in a saw accident and learned to play guitar despite that. Studied film at New York University. Drove a cab. Moved back to Pensacola. Wrote some songs, made a movie about the South.
But what you most need to know about this singer-songwriter is that Jim White inhabits another reality. Or, as he says, from the vantage point of 50+ years, “I have a mind like a child. I walk through the world with a fog behind me and a fog in front of me — I can barely see where my foot lands.”
So when it comes to his music, classify him unclassifiable. He’s the country/rock singer in the obligatory hat, only with a horn section behind him. He’s the anti-commercial militant — a lot of his songs are six minutes long — who writes trance music you can’t get out of your head.
Best, perhaps, to regard him as a thrillingly original poet, an eccentric guy in a ’70 Impala who can be found at midnight driving down the back road, looking for freight trains and neon signs in the mist. There’s a spoonful of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in the CD, but you’ll also find characters from the Southern Gothic Carnival: preachers in smoky places, Madonnas in double-wides, coal miners, long distance bus passengers, barroom saints and sinners.
He not only sings about these people, he creates their context. For those who didn’t lean and listen close to “Static On the Radio”:
3 A.M. I’m awakened by a sweet summer rain…
distant howling of a passing southbound coal train.
Was I dreaming or was there someone just lying here beside me in this bed?
Am I hearing things? Or in the next room, did a long forgotten music box just start playing?
The music is foggy, distant, ghostly; you feel like you’re on Quaaludes, in some ether where life and death just possibly merge. And then we discover this is a duet — and the female singer is Aimee Mann:
And I know: It’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead.
And I know: It’s a crime to weave your wishes into what they said.
And I know: Only fools venture where them spirits tread.
‘Cause I know: Every word, every sound bouncing ’round my head
Is just static on the radio.
Everything I think I know is just static on the radio.
Spooky stuff. Late-evening music. Songs to play outside, or for friends at the end of the party, romantic sounds for nights when the windows’s open and the rain dances on the street. Pretentious? Much less than you’d think. Most of these songs live off the cracked wisdom of the mythic South, some blow past tragedy and skid into humor (“If Jesus Drove a Motor Home”), none break the mood.
Wonder what I’m making such a fuss about? Scratch the itch of your curiosity. Dive in the pool and kiss someone underwater. Eavesdrop in the room where everyone’s blind. Let your mind leap from the pine woods to the coal mine to the road house to the alley behind the church. And there, perhaps, you’ll find the song behind the song, the rich vein of beauty lying on the far side of the static on the radio.
Yes, Jim White just might be that good.
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