White Williams, AKA Joe Williams, first rose to prominence in 2007 when he opened selected dates for the double-bill of Dan Deacon and Girl Talk. Given this kind of background, the unwary listener may think they know what to expect from Smoke. Add the fact that the album has been released on Tigerbeat6, and you could probably be pretty safe in anticipating a hopelessly frenetic, breakcore-influenced sample-strewn extravaganza of intense adrenaline-soaked electronic music.
Well, that would be a safe assumption, but it couldn’t be more wrong. Joe Williams paid his dues in the world of noise rock, playing in groups with fun names like Oblongata, Machete and Mr Mad Man. He played with folks like Melt Banana and Lightning Bolt. But Smoke is positively placid in this context, a well-heeled example of laptop pop that barely reveals its electronic roots. The effect is not unlike that of Hot Chip ditching their synthesizers and deciding to record a Krautrock cover of Graceland—the whole album, not so much the song. There’s a lot of space in the sound here, a lot of room for careful noodling and subtle effects.
Get past the rather uproarious cover art—which, again, serves to telegraph a far different album than the one actually on display—and you find a surprisingly deft example of pop songcraft. Only rarely do the electronic filigrees threaten to overwhelm the design. First track “Headlines” briefly dissolves into synthesizer squiggles, and the album’s final track, “Lice in the Rainbow”, is an off-beat synth instrumental that manages to be both startlingly out of place, and yet a fitting capstone to a very unconventionally conventional album. “In the Club” had nothing to do with 50 Cent, but rather a sedate pseudo-glam rock track that slouches in the general direction of T-Rex while not really raising it’s pulse above the level of “louche”. “New Violence” is a nod in the direction of Can, with it’s tightly wound motorik beat laying the foundation for a concise, coiled rock groove. It sounds convincingly epic in less than three minutes, and points to what will become the album’s strongest recurring motifs.
“Going Down” is perhaps the most satisfying track here, a loose bit of Afrobeat that sounds exactly like The Good, the Bad and the Queen should have sounded like, with a strong pop hook over immensely funky guitar lines that seem to have been Fed Ex’ed directly from Fear of Music. The title track is less successful, owing to a rather dissolute attempt at summoning the general effect of the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” without anywhere near the same focus. But it picks up again with “The Shadow”, which again seems delicately balanced between African and German conceptions of rhythm. Even a few silly vocoder bits can’t detract from the massively catchy groove.
“Danger” is a regrettable throwaway, followed up by a head-scratching cover of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” (popularized, of course, by Bow Wow Wow). There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, and it certainly improves on similar covers by Aaron Carter and Melanie C, but still, it’s too sedate by half. “Fleetwood Crack” falls similarly flat. But the album recovers with “Route to Palm”, another canny slice of danceable dream-pop that builds on a solid Krautrock foundation to instill pleasant melodic movements in the listener’s unsuspecting head.
I wouldn’t normally go through every track like that, but I thought it was interesting to see how White Williams varies on a track by track basis throughout the album, careening from superb to subpar seemingly at will. There’s a few really strong tracks studded throughout, and an equal number of good ones, so the experience is better on the balance than not. I think that if Williams can get a better handle on just what works and doesn’t, he stands a good chance of making his next album significantly better than his first.
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