Sam Wilkes


LA experimental jazz musician turns on the cruise control for a laidback ride into singer-songwriter land

If you’re familiar with Sam Wilkes as an experimental jazz musician, then DRIVING’s more poppy reference points might come as a surprise. Sometimes, he wears these new influences on his sleeve, other times he blends them together more subtly. And you don’t need to be afraid of his new chamber popish palette – comparable to artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Louis Philippe, Alex G and Black Moth Super Rainbow – because he’s got a smart and emotional approach to using it.

Halfway through the album, ‘Own’ jumps out at you for its slightly progressive arrangement which focuses tightly around the melancholy of the guitar’s arpeggiations – the abrupt, chugging strings should clash and busy the rest of the track (which also features a peppy French horn) but instead the overall sound swells with bittersweetness. It’s probably the strongest track on the album, balancing complex melody, hooks, and emotionality.

The song’s arrangement also provides the perfect home for Wilkes’ vocals, which sound both sad and strangely absent at the same time. ‘Own’ also points towards a warmly personal-sounding form of songwriting for the artist. The similarly taut ‘Again, Again’ also has a very strong melodic sense, with echoes of jangly British indie-via-LA – you get the sense that Wilkes is finding joy in indulging some formative reference points and that’s totally fine with me. Tracks like these provide a great foil for the rest of the album, which otherwise is very roaming and exploratory.

That’s because unlike say Brian Wilson or Joni Mitchell, Wilkes doesn’t seem much of a perfectionist — he lets his melodies drift off and fade out; demonstrating that he isn’t too precious about where it’s headed. This can be both intriguing and frustrating, leaving you to wonder what a more fussy Wilkes would be capable of arranging. At the same time, the world he creates in his music spirals open dreamily, and so is perfectly suited to a bright autumnal day and encourages several deep listens so you can pick up even more layers.

DRIVING – if we’re to go with the album title’s image – creates the sense of cruise controlling on a Californian highway, not speeding down the Autobahn. Features in the endless landscape gradually look as if they’re repeating themselves, and you’re wondering how much distance you’ve really crossed. It’s not an unusual headspace to be in while listening to an American indie album by any means, but here it’s absorbingly hypnotic and sells the myth.

Wilkes contrasts his more exploratory pieces like the busy samples-focused opener ‘Folk Home’ with his acoustic guitar-driven tracks. It seems now as if he’s much more interested in the album structure as an art in itself – as there’s more of a variation in production approach between each track, they stand out as having their own individual personalities. The structures on these more experimental pieces loop and amble, with percussion and other elements drifting in and out of the foreground. They take us back to some of the ambient textures that he’s used on some of his earlier albums like WILKES, or One Theme & Subsequent Improvisation.

Distinct vocals seem to be Wilkes, but they’re not a major new feature on the album. His lyrics are hazy and unclear, and at times quite simple and stream of consciousness when they are heard – such as on the closing track ‘Driving’ – pretty lines like “outside the greens are greener” emphasise the brightness of his acoustic guitar melodies. His vocal melody bobs and weaves over the cycling guitar chords, making for an off-the-cuff feel. Vocals aren’t used for much storytelling, instead helping to create intricate mood-pieces that reveal Wilkes’ flair for interesting chord progressions.

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