Even if the Elvis by way of trip-hop premise of Here’s Willy Moon is a gimmick, who cares when it’s this fun?
Willy Moon looks and sings like a '50's rock star, but he uses modern day faux vintage recording techniques and hip-hop breakbeats. This review of Here's Willy Moon, the New Zealand wannabe Elvis' debut, could stop right here and have said all that needs to be said about Moon's musical approach. Any excitement ginned up over his debut album will rest its case on the union of those two styles. Moon, who started causing ripples in the water after appearing in an iPod commercial with lead single "Yeah Yeah," puts all of his chips down on the thought that his old/new mesh will remain compelling over the course of twelve songs. And, at just over twenty-six minutes, he doesn't mince any of his words--though he does filter them through plenty of retro effects. The pseudo-noir gamut that is Here's Willy Moon is unabashedly surface; it's a wonder he wasn't asked to write the music to the equally superficial Ryan Gosling policier Gangster Squad, which hit theaters only a few months before the release of this LP. Both are enamored with the old-school personality of 1950's US pop culture, and each takes the dark appeal of that era without bringing along any of its moral ambiguity or complexity. There's a song here called "Murder Ballad", but Moon is less like a trenchcoated hood and more like the suave guy that mothers would want their daughters bringing home to them.
Yet even when Here's Willy Moon feels at its most throwaway, it's an undeniable blast. The album's concise runtime means the central conceit never really runs out of gas, and Moon does well to craft diverse enough tracks so that he doesn't exhaust the "'Jailhouse Rock' meets Wu-Tang Clan" bit. Opener "Get Up (What You Need)" wrings as much potency as it can out of a well-placed string section. "Working for the Company" and "I Put a Spell on You" use some wicked cool horns and brass to inject the back-alley menace Moon aims at, with marginal success. Infectious beats back "Railroad Track" and "My Girl". These twelve tracks, which at their longest go just barely past three minutes, have a punchy, immediate appeal that are worth at least a dozen listens. The novelty of Moon's approach is as immediate as the hooks, but when the hooks are this good it hardly matters.
The type of pop music experiment Moon is engaged with here is something that's already been warmly received by the public. Consider, for a moment, Daft Punk's overhyped Random Access Memories, which dropped but a week before Here's Willy Moon's stateside release. RAM, like Here's Willy Moon, is a document of a love affair with the decades past. Its sonics are heavily reliant on pastiche. These records, of course, aren't identical, as for every similarity there's a corresponding disanalogy. Moon's Black Keys-esque production quality is rough around the edges, whereas the robots' analog instrumentation is slickly captured. Moon is interested in the intersections of past and present, whereas despite all the futuristic vocoder on RAM, Daft Punk's primary concern is a mythic, "forgotten" era of music. In each instance, however, the musicians don't delve into the nuances and complexities of the days-gone-by they so long to capture; they've done their homework and know what the notes are supposed to sound like, and they play them in such a way that the associations are easy to see.
But, in the end, it doesn't really matter in terms of pleasure; that Here's Willy Moon and RAM don't usurp long-standing ideas about retro or contemporary music does little to effect their enjoyment. Both are mellifluous, exuberant recordings that capture their respective musicians reveling in the broadest musical traits of past decades, and having a hell of a time doing so. The gimmickry of Moon's music does prevent his debut from ever being labeled as great art, but it certainly doesn't prevent it from being one of 2013's most ecstatic, all-out fun albums.