Nick Waterhouse knows his retro sounds well enough that he doesn't have to merely imitate them. Over four albums, he writes, performs and arranges with an intention both designed to nod at the '50s and '60s stylists he reveres while also subverting them. His best songs don't arrive with a thick coat of dust, but bristle with an instability that feels very much about now.
His self-titled fourth album continues the progression made since his 2012 debut, "Time's All Gone," which sounded pleasingly rough around the edges. Since then he's worked to tighten up the sound and the production, and "Nick Waterhouse" (Innovative Leisure) occasionally comes off as a little too clean and polite. But when he loosens his tie a bit, Waterhouse brings a spark to his songs that transcends era and genre.
The singer deploys veteran swingers such as guitarist Bart Davenport, saxophonist Paula Henderson and flutist Ricky Washington, and there's rarely a wasted a note in the scrupulously scripted arrangements. If you value sharp musicianship, bopping tempos, tight arrangements with lots of counterpoint instrumentation and vocals, and the highest standards of pop craft melding elements of soul, blues, R&B and early rock 'n' roll, Waterhouse will hold appeal.
Given his immersion in classic styles and stylists, Waterhouse sometimes can't help sounding like the sum of his influences. The songs frequently blend genres, so the rhythmic reference to Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" at the outset of "By Heart" is more of a sly wink than a case of grand theft as the song strolls off into the twilight behind cowbell percussion, swooping vocal harmonies and uptown horns. "El Viv" combines surf and soul, as if the Champs' "Tequila" featured guitar riffing by Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MG's.
Yet a darker tone undermines the playfulness, and Waterhouse's best music feels like a noir soundtrack for today. In "Song for Winners," he declares, "Your strange innocence has ended," with a rawness in his delivery underlined by the haunted backing harmonies. Eeriness saturates "Undedicated," a twilight zone of surrealism in which "there's an exit and there's a way out, and the two just ain't the same."
"Man Leaves Town" builds to a wail by one of the backing vocalists and a terse, strangled guitar solo. On "Black Glass," a rumble starts to build as horns and flute enter the mix, and sassy backing vocals stoke the tension. "Adapt or die," Waterhouse sings, a mission statement as good as any for an artist who continually strives to mine the past for new meaning.
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