A few years ago, the multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilkis wrote a song about Williamsburg that’s full of the ironic affection that defines hipster/anti-hipster attitudes about the place:
Tell me all the bands that kinda sound like other bands
That we kinda sound like
Tell me something witty and ironic
That references some other thing
Oh Williamsburg, you are my love, I’d do anything for you
Though he now lives in Williamsburg, you don’t hear much about that hipster lifestyle explicitly on Babies Dream Big, his debut solo album. Rather, Wilkis has what most young musicians can only hope for—that genuine and wholly unpretentious appeal of the very cool.
What’s unusual about Babies Dream Big is that it does this without hardly ever dipping into what we might think of as “experimental” or “non-traditional” or “Brooklyn” sounds. In fact, Wilkis’s musical referents spring not from artists at the edge of today’s sound, but directly from yesterday’s mainstream. “I’m trying to take familiar sounds and textures from the ‘60s through the ‘80s and re-imagine them, hopefully presenting them in refreshing and unexpected ways,” Wilkis explains.
Think of well-known masters of R&B (Prince), soul (Stevie Wonder), classic rock (Boston), and soft rock (even Phil Collins). You can hear flashes and unusual combinations of all of these through much of Wilkis’s music. But each strain is strongly tied together through their creator, a performer with a big, inclusive personality. Comparisons to Jamie Lidell come to mind, though in this case Wilkis is drawing from a wider cache of pop history that merely blue eyed soul.
At Harvard, where he attended college, Wilkis played in a hip-hop group called Witness Protection Program. It was the campus’s premier party band, though you could always hear the different musical sensibilities of the members straining to coexist—the melodic, 2001-influenced synths of Nick Britell, the Beastie Boys-influenced raps of Jacob Rubin and Benny Peterson, and in the background, Wilkis’s barely contained classic-rock guitar. (On the rare occasion that he was allowed the room to expand into solo mode, the songs came alive.)
For a few years after graduating, Wilkis played in a duo with WPP’s drummer, Pete Kennedy, in small clubs in downtown Manhattan—places like Pianos, ACME Underground, and Arlene’s Grocery, where you find ambitious young musicians playing to small crowds of friends every night of the week. The group self-produced a record, Rocks, that, though a bit inconsistent, hints at the influences that pervade Wilkis’s solo work. From the straightforward blues of “The Optimist” to the self-conscious referencing of “Williamsburg” mentioned above, A Plus P was Wilkis, entertaining as always, but still in finding-his-voice mode.
Well, the songs on Babies Dream Big make a strong case for Alan Wilkis having found his voice. Though there’s still a fair amount of genre-hopping throughout the course of the album, there is also a strong sense of unified artistic identity.
Once or twice, Wilkis and another talented musician from the class of ‘04, Matt O’Malley, hosted impromptu dance parties in the library of the Spee club at Harvard, making up simple beats and messing with computer and guitar effects in real time. They even reprised the act at Don Hills in New York once. Each time, the little experiments became an unexpected, don’t-want-it-to-end pleasure. The point is, the guy knows his way around the business end of a MacBook Pro, and has a firm sense that what’s most important to him is not necessarily the “cool factor” of innovative or experimental sound, but the manipulation of classic elements of pop songwriting with modern tools.
His recorded songs use this to their advantage, and come across as refreshingly modern as a result. Think of Zach Condon on “After the Curtain” or “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseilles”, but in an infinitely happier place. There’s a lightheartedness to much of the material on the album, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that has him singing about girls with tattoos “on the lower back up to the sky”, riding around on bicycles. And then there is the trio of songs recently used to soundtrack GOOD Magazine’s entertaining candidate profiles. Listen to them and you’re likely to be hooked on Alan Wilkis. “I’m Famous” should be on an iPod commercial. “Milk and Cookies” will have you singing the chorus (“Ooh, they’re so nutritious”) for days and days.
A few musicians helped with the making of the debut record. Eric Biondo, who’s in Beyondo and has played and recorded with many bands around NYC, including TV on the Radio and Massive Attack, plays trumpet on “I Wanna Know”. Jason Treuting of So Percussion plays live drums on a couple of tracks. Wilkis is full of enthusiasm about working with these musicians (he calls Biondo “incredibly talented” and Treuting a “percussion monster”), but the album’s character and personality is overwhelmingly Wilkis’s own. And the self-produced beats and simple drum machines that are often used suit the organic, carefree nature of the music. Only on relatively straighter soul fare like “I Love the Way” could Wilkis potentially benefit from a slicker, more professional producer’s touch.
Wilkis has said that his main priority in making this album was “to make a fun and happy record that is a bit more complex than it seems on the surface.” In this aim he’s certainly succeeded—Babies Dream Big has you hoping with crossed fingers that some happy chance allows Wilkis’s own big dreams to become a reality. If you’ve ever been left a bit cold by the recommendations of music websites that seem to be championing bands for the sake of their newness alone, you’ll appreciate what Alan Wilkis is trying to do with his music. If you find yourself occasionally suspecting that “experimentalism”, or willingness to stray away from recognizable forms, is used by many of the “Brooklyn bands” as a cover for mediocre songwriting, you’ll be refreshed by this one’s straightforward and optimistic retro-pop sound.
One day, when he is, the curling, gleeful shout of “I’m famous!” will still be an inclusive, uplifting reminder that not all Brooklynites make their music memorable by exclusion. Now hear this: infectious Brooklyn retro-electro-pop for everybody.
- Mulitple songs MySpace