ARTIST: Nick Waterhouse
When I started digging for records I was advised to look for records with “rings.” The ring, an imprint of the record’s shape on the outside cover, is supposed to indicate how much the album was loved. This ring, a halo, brands itself through consistent wear and use. It shows how frequently the record’s been pulled out of its sleeve, put back, and pulled out. It says, “I’ve been through a lot” and “I’m worn down by love.” Nick Waterhouse’s sophomore album, Holly, is an album I imagine finding in a dingy cardboard box at an estate sale. Its cover, slightly bent, and slightly haloed. Two years after his first album, Time’s All Gone, Waterhouse returns to solidify his throwback sound. Waterhouse’s sound is both anachronistic, but charmingly fresh and relevant. He’s the throwback kid with an old soul who managed to create another album you’d imagine finding first on vinyl, then recalibrating to fit your digital library. His voice carries the ghosts of the 1950s and the 1960s, though it’s not so much a haunting, but an embracing. His sound is a modern translation of the soul, R&B, funk, and even surf-rock of these infamous decades. His voice, gritty and throaty, eases into seductive lulls. His voice, though youthful in its conveyance, is both aged and old-fashioned. It’s a refined Eric Burdon—a lifted, crooning, yearning voice. Waterhouse wails “woah” and “no” to not only reiterate a point, but to pull you back by your wrist. His voice is dark and raw, playful and punchy. It’s a voice that travels past thick cigar smoke to sit in your lap. Supported by female vocalists and the Tarots, a troupe of musicians who play the saxophone, keyboard, bass guitar, drums, and even the bongos, Waterhouse brings in a full, often seductive, sound built on both technique and emotion. Further complementing his vocals is his electric guitar. Waterhouse often goes into solos that only further solidify his thoughtful musicianship. Though most of the tracks are short (half of the songs in Holly are under three minutes), Waterhouse and his backing group work with this restraint to move quickly into funky riffs and interludes. Most tracks also end with a snap—an immediate halt in sounds. This contributes a punchy, spunky effect to the album. The collaboration between Waterhouse’s voice and the instruments works to create a cool, speakeasy vibe.
Holly should be played at a pool party where girls wear cat-eye sunglasses and scarves, where a beach ball is in perpetual flight, where the dancing is comprised of nonchalant hip thrusts or in a dimly lit bar with leather booths and a bartender who knows your name but calls you “kid” or on the road somewhere out West, windows down, the heat bouncing off the highway, sweat on the sides of your face, squinting as the sun sets, everything a rusted brown. It’s easy to imagine all of these scenarios because Waterhouse’s sound is successfully nostalgic. What these scenarios have in common is that they are all scenes of Americana—the retro America that’s often reimagined in postcards and pastel paintings in diners. Waterhouse finds a home in these retro conventions. His lyricism even addresses the nostalgic space his sounds create. His awareness of time is not only a symptom of resuscitating music that’s “vintage” or “retro,” but is a recurring theme in Holly. In “Well It’s Fine,” Waterhouse sings, “When I stop to wind my watch well I find asking for the time.” In the final (and longest) track, “Hands On The Clock,” Waterhouse slows down to extend his final moment with us. The album can also be considered a narrative about a figure named Holly. Holly, the muse, is most likely a composite of various female “characters”—femme fatales, mysterious heartbreakers, and saccharine lovers. More interesting, however, is reconfiguring Holly as a metonym for “Hollywood”—the misleadingly idyllic place of dreams, the place that attracted an exodus of individuals hungry for fame and fortune. Waterhouse, a Californian boy with his heart firmly rooted in the West Coast, lets his origins seep into his sound. Listening to this album through this lens, one can hear Waterhouse providing a narrative on the sometimes dark, deluded trek to fame and fortune in Hollywood. The album begins with a pining for love, desire, and understanding, then reflects on trying but losing, alludes to actions of self-harm, and later, a mysterious murder, a stint in a purgatorial space, and closes with meditative retractions back into one’s own soul. It’s “the Hollywood story” gone awry narrated by a sympathetic, perhaps empathetic, voice.
Though parts of the album can sound a little redundant—some tracks only immediately identifiable as “different” once Waterhouse begins singing—Holly is an overall solid album. The immediate threat involved in creating music that resurrects a specific era is being quickly categorized as a gimmick. The sincerity in Waterhouse’s voice and the attention paid to the quality of the accompanying instruments protect Holly from this. Waterhouse is cool, but first, he’s real. He understands the importance of location, of origins, and of history and the implications of recreating a vintage sound in today’s hyperactive, future-driven society. Waterhouse knows why he wants to make the sounds he makes. If Waterhouse is “stuck in an era,” he is in that era out of love. But what allows Waterhouse to comfortably occupy both the present and the past is his own comfort in straddling both times. His suave demeanor is as steady as the sound of fingers snapping to a beat.
“It comes from way inside where the people’s little demons go to run and hide.”