The debut from twenty-three-year-old Joe “White” Williams is a fractured musical vision, painstakingly built like a mosaic out of the ill-fitting shards of his favorite pop records. Surely, crate-digging obsessives will gravitate toward such seamless integration of so many specific sonic references. And who can really argue with stealing from the greats? Neu! and Kraftwerk; Iggy Pop circa 1977; Bolan boogie; new wave, from the Human League to Bow Wow Wow; the electronic avant-garde — they all figure into the mix.
Even Williams’s songwriting itself cribs from these models. “In the Club” may be outfitted in programmed beats and synthetic flourishes, but, as a song, it could have been lifted from Electric Warrior. The same goes for the irresistible bounce of “New Violence,” a pitch-perfect synthesis of Bowie’s stints as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. A robotic rhythm section propels the song with the unwavering insistence of machines, while synthesized squiggles flit and sighing vocals swoop.
Perhaps Williams’s most single-minded stroke of genius, though, is “Route to Palm.” In this lushly produced pop song, echoing guitars float over a drum beat that could only be described as motorik with a Sunday driver’s pace. As he sings lilting, descending melodies, it’s the one point on the album where he fully integrates his diffuse influences into a sound that doesn’t require some qualified cross-reference.
Unfortunately, much of the album’s songwriting is glaringly outstripped by its production acumen. The sideways funk of the title track is a mess of wonderful sounds, from the growl of funky bass to the swerve of pitch-shifting synths. But listening to it is an absolute chore. Conjuring the production coup of Beck’s vapid Midnight Vultures, “Smoke” is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Apart from a few musical flights buried in “Danger” and the awesomely titled “Fleetwood Crack,” these two tunes also lack the necessary orientation of a sturdily built song.
There’s no question that stellar production can transform simple, undecorated songs into masterpieces, but it’s wasted when there is no substance underneath. After all, who wants to listen to an album for its exquisitely curated tones?
White Williams may write songs like an impressionable youth, paying homage to his favorite bands through that most flattering form of tribute, imitation. But there’s plenty on Smoke to suggest that there’s a self-assured songwriter lurking beneath scattershot influences. (Besides, it’s hard to fault him too much for having the good sense to have chosen these artists to emulate.) Until he graduates to that place of maturity, his debut remains bittersweet, split between promising songwriting mimicry and impressive smoke-and-mirrors tricks as a producer.