I’ve spent a good bit of the summer reading Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on Jim White’s reading list, as well. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist—raised in Pensacola, Fla., the reputed American leader in churches per capita—named his 1997 Luaka Bop debut Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and on his most recent release, Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, he still won’t leave the Lord alone. Over 10 tracks of Flannery O’Connor–infected Americana, White uses God for a Cyrano, in “That Girl From Brownsville Texas” (“Lord I might finally be willing to become the religious fool you always wanted me to be…if in return we could just tell that girl I’m the man you and me both know I ain’t”); gets fatalistic, in “Phone Booth in Heaven (“[Y]ou can’t mend what the Good Lord designed to be broken”); and muses, in “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home,” over holy transportation: “If Jesus drove a motor home, and he come to your town, would you try to talk to him?” He even meets his savior in the form of a “blue hair comb with a busted tooth” in the jubilant “Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style.” We’ve heard this tricked-out gospel imagery before, but White’s hick-hop arrangement (real, nonsynth horns, funky keyboards, wandering mouth harp) and church-whispery vocals testify that his heart’s been truly moved—and your hips may be, as well. White likewise bridges the gap between artifice and emotion with that husky storyteller’s tone in the sublime, Iron and Wine–like banjo tale “Borrowed Wings”; he and guest Susie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) give voice to a sorta-dead couple who steal the transport of “sweet-dreaming angels” but can’t travel beyond Earth. White is himself in a sort of limbo on this atmospheric collection (elegantly produced by White and Joe Henry): He loves to play with Southern Gothic trappings, but he’s preaching to be loved as much as depicting haints and demons. The opening track is a case in point: Although he evokes Bone Machine–era Tom Waits with the percussive shuffle and eerie synths at the opening of “Static on the Radio,” and the counterpoint of steady drum-and-rattle rhythms and wide-open wails continues throughout the track, the vocals could just as well be Mark Knopfler or David Gray. Even though the song finds him sitting in his truck outside the Sunday service, musing “Ten years ago I might have joined in…for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing,” “Static,” with Aimee Mann singing backup on the catchy chorus, might well represent White’s most fervent prayer: a chance to find a mainstream audience.
—Pamela Murray Winters
Jim White performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.