Nick Waterhouse looks like Elvis Costello and sings like a smoother Dan Auerbach. He writes tight, short songs that would make Bert Bern of Twist And Shout fame proud. You can imagine that he and Van Morrison have a similar record collection, including the Irish bard’s own classics. Unlike other genre-resurging acts like The Allah-las, Tame Impala, Ty Segall or Foxygen, Waterhouse’s main well of inspiration is not classic ’60s rock and roll, but R&B and soul, the kind you listened to in the ’50s on a Chess Records LP.
With his new album, Holly, you can feel all these inspirations seep up through every second of each recording. Rather than being derivative, however, the LA songster has crafted songs that can stand up to the classics with considerable ease.
The album kicks off with the High Tidings and immediately you’ve stumbled into a time machine. Co-produced with Kevin Augunas of The Black Keys and Ed Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros fame, Waterhouse has draped each recording in acoustics that feel at home in a smoke-filled studio from 50 years past. With support from excellent pianist/organist Larry Goldings, Captain Beefheart’s JT Thomas, and others, Holly has strong talent behind its engine. Glorious blues piano rings around the mid-album track Let It Come Down while those Motown horns gloriously ring out a warning. Sleeping Pills follows and shows Waterhouse’s chops. When he delivers the lines “I counted 16 hairs that you sat on the desk/ and you were grinnin’ at me, at the bones in my fist,” you shudder in delight.
However, those looking to get a glimpse of the man underneath will be sorely disappointed. Whereas some artists, Morrison included, used the distinct, exotic sound of R&B and soul to craft intensely personal tomes and musings to its power, Waterhouse follows a different path. As the man himself says: “Thematically this record feels more like a novella, or a poem with sections, or even a film, than a collection of songs. It’s a work of fiction, with a protagonist, but also a floating omniscient narrator and fragments of conversation from other characters. I was heavily influenced by my surroundings in young Los Angeles, as well as the concept of fate.”
The main intention, it seems, is not one of personal revelation but of a conceptual album about a seedy LA which doesn’t really exist anymore, the kind of fantasy rooted in pulp fiction novels and noir films. Holly is an exercise in acting, a production of sorts. In this way Waterhouse is more intellectual than emotional with his vision, yet exhibits excellent singing and phrasing that don’t directly imply disconnection or gross parody.
This voice lends itself well to songs like the titular track, where he croons and scats to the pulsing horns and chorus of “Holly, Holly Lights.” Christmas in LA, used in movies such as The Thin Man and the genius Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is hinted at profusely with its reference to such festive adornments. Clearly the man has done his homework.
Then comes Dead Room, a brilliant, single-worthy gem featuring a funeral organ riff so catchy it can only be calmed by repeated listens. The production is sexy, ominous, cool and danceable all at once. It is, in this author’s opinion, the best track off the album. The backing female vocals are smooth and collected, and you wonder if Waterhouse somehow resurrected Ray Charles’ girl group The Raelettes.
The only song that doesn’t quite gel is the jazz-infused Well It’s Fine. It’s a good song; more sparse in instrumentation than the others, so much so that it almost sounds like a demo, but as it comes right after Dead Room, the listener may feel a little deflated at its standard blues progression and stripped-down, plain jazz arrangement.
Ain’t There Something That Money features the backup ladies spelling out money, Aretha Franklin style (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” translates to “M-O-N-E-Y” surprisingly well). Hands On The Clock ends the album on a high note, and then it’s all over. A short, sweet ride, and one worth taking again and again.