On The WiNK, we hear the intimacy of fumbling, playful, and willfully wispy songs, conceived and born into disconcerting half-lives in the bedroom.
Eighteen years ago, singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Presley fronted the Nerve Agents, a hardcore L.A. outfit. He mellowed somewhat leading Darker My Love, a neo-psychedelic band that blended woozy melodies, layered instrumental attacks, and dense production into two punchy records. They even opened for the Fall on their disastrous 2006 American tour. Presley and a bandmate found themselves recruited for that venerable ensemble's Reformation Post TLC disc the next year. By 2010, DML drifted off into Grateful Dead circa 1970 territory. Their third album, 2010's Alive As You Are, though pleasant and tuneful, was not as memorable.
Tim Presley's most innovative phase was during White Fence, his one-man band in his home studio. Perhaps named after one of his adopted city's oldest street gangs, White Fence packed many influences, like the slide guitar reveries of George Harrison, the odd lyrical ditties of Syd Barrett, the frenzied DIY attitude of earliest Pavement, and the fun of garage rock crammed into sly solos.
Then, Presley met Welsh musician Cate Le Bon. The two joined as DRINKS to release Hermits on Holiday two years ago, which has lead to her producing and playing guitar on The WiNK. Comparisons to the duo the Fiery Furnaces may orient the potential listener, if off and on. On this sparse new CD, Presley favors a stripped-down approach; the fuzz and feedback of White Fence's insular, bewildering ambiance ebbs, yet the devotion to off-kilter experimentation endures. Freed from filters and effects that drowned White Fence and Darker My Love in processed and amplified overdrive, this record, the first under his name, seems to signal a retreat from years of loudness. Instead, guitars wobble, keyboards plink, and drums from Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa do less to support than to help this whole teetering enterprise totter.
As a longtime fan of Presley's up-tempo and off-beat work, I expected more heft. The title track, as with many other cuts, evokes Swell Maps' tinker-toy tunes combined with a faux Ray Davies accent. "Solitude Cola" ticks along in a minimalist riff, a wind-up toy song inspired by Krautrock, whereas "Goldfish Wheelchair" ambles along in the spirit of English eccentrics at a country fairground (courtesy of the faint calliope touches from Le Bon's carnival-esque keyboards). Throughout, Presley's long-borrowed Britpop air may annoy some listeners who hear it apart from the lysergic swirl of his earlier records.
Elsewhere, "Morris" mumbles a message of love, hinting at a bent folkish air, while "ER" falls into the Saturday Night Live parody of "Sprockets" and tests listeners' patience, as do a few other tracks. But patience pays off.
The last three entries on The WiNK fare the best. "Kerouac" brings a "Lady Jane" regal quality, overly dignified at first (until tinkering keyboards return). Presley's vocals wander about, but the mixture succeeds in its strangeness. "Clue" summons up Captain Beefheart's unpredictable rhythms just as some of the song titles echo his own verbal quirks, and "Aura Aura" closes The WiNK with a nod to Robyn Hitchcock's melancholic moments as well as their shared role model, Syd Barrett.
True, this is not an easy album to warm up to, but despite initial hesitations, repeated listening may reveal more nuances. Faced with a drastic departure from Presley's complex arrangements for so long, those turning to The WiNK will enter an album far less rock-oriented than before. Instead, we hear the intimacy of fumbling, playful, and willfully wispy songs, conceived and born into disconcerting half-lives in the bedroom.