Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See
rom the splinter in the hand to the thorn in the heart to the shotgun to the head
you've got no choice but to learn to glean solace from pain or you'll end up cynical or dead
Jim White has known pain, and he's known sorrow, and he knows that there's not much use in waiting around for explanation or redemption. Though he knows the memory is gonna haunt you. He knows that “sometimes the thing that you cling to is a thing you had best forget”—or so he tells us, in so many words, on two of the songs off his latest. He's a stoic and a storyteller and a bit of a sage, frequently a Stetson wearer (though not for this photo shoot.) His most recent record, a refinement and a resumption of the mellower moments of his more sensibly titled first two—the debut Wrong-Eyed Jesus and 2001's endlessly fascinating No Such Place (source of that there epigram)—could be just the thing to ease your over-addled psyche, and save us all from cynicism, if not from sin. He may have more questions than answers, but he's got plenty of solace to offer.
Drill a Hole………, nutty non sequitur of a title notwithstanding, is a smooth, smooth ride; Jim's not out to make any bumps. He wends his way winsomely, strumming your pain with his sonic palette—that ambiguously regional (Western? Southern?) ambience somewhere between Nashville sheen and the dingy-but-carefully-arranged detritus of a Califone or Calexico—singing what could be your life with his always exquisite words.
Sometimes those words form stories—White's often hailed as an inheritor of the Southern Gothic literary aesthetic—but they tend to be fragmentary and elusive, like the ghosts that pepper them, haunting Jim through "Static on the Radio" (something else he knows: "only fools venture where them spirits tread.") His eerie—at times gory—yarn-spinning tends toward allegory rather than literalism this time out. The body in a river floating through "Objects in Motion" becomes a locus for generalized rumination on transience and unknowability, rather than a narrative set piece (like the one in Place's deliciously creepy murderess mystery "The Wound That Never Heals.")
A retreat from overt tale-telling makes these songs less immediate and localized but potentially more personal, both for Jim and his listeners, as he strips away the surreality and specificity and renders his murky ruminations more universally resonant. The themes of these ruminations—solitude, uncertainty, ghosts, victims of bad love, and a complex, multivalent relationship with Christianity and religion—are serious matters, but that shouldn’t suggest this is a heavy record. It’s sometimes somber, but never overbearing or gloomy, and it gets downright silly at several points.
Unfortunately, these lighter pieces—"Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style" and "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home"—tread worryingly close to novelty, playing out as little more than facile riffs on their titular drollities. "Alabama Chrome" is more successful, benefiting from an injection of musical whimsicality courtesy of the Barenaked Ladies (of all people) without surrendering the obfuscating lyrical imprecision that makes White’s best words so compelling. There's a thin line between humor and seriousness in White's work, and he's generally adept at achieving both simultaneously. Indeed, the album's wryest punchline is also its most heartwrenchingly poignant moment—it's almost too good to repeat here—in which White addresses God directly vis-à-vis “That Girl From Brownsville Texas”:
Lord, I might finally be willing to become the religious fool you've always wanted me to be
If in return you could just tell that girl…
[a capella now:]…I'm the man…
You and me both know…
That I ain't…
Befitting its lyrical tone, Drill is by some measure the calmest of Jim's three albums to date. The result is more one of cohesion than monotony—some may find it calculatedly sophisticated to the point of soporificity, but ultimately it works wonders as a genuine album whole. Compared to the somewhat lopsided No Such Place, Drill is equal in actual running time, but somehow it doesn’t feel nearly as long.
Of course, Jim's not in any hurry. He lets his songs stretch out and breathe—the average track length is a bit under six minutes—and he knows what he’s doing. He knows you probably need to stretch and breathe a bit too. He knows we could all use some comfort, and how to share it. And he knows—well, I’ll let him speak for both of us:
I know—for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing
still I hope—there’s others out there who are listening
Reviewed by: K. Ross Hoffman
Reviewed on: 2005-01-07