More Dark Retro Soul From Nick Waterhouse

by delarue

Nick Waterhouse has been one of the prime movers in the retro soul movement for over a decade. His latest album Promenade Blue – streaming at Bandcamp – is a welcome addition to that consistently strong, purist body of work, focusing more on the noir side of that sound than usual here. You know the drill: reverb on everything, harmony singers who punch in on the chorus, trebly guitars and melodic bass playing through vintage amps, and nonstop catchy hooks.

With the opening track, Place Names, Waterhouse reinvents pre-Motown soul with stark strings in lieu of the kind of wafting orchestral sonics that Phil Spector would have used. And Waterhouse is more of a crooner than most artists from that era. At about four minutes, the song gives him a chance to chill and reflect on better times…as those of us who remember the glory days before March 16, 2020 have probably been doing in the time since.

The Spanish Look doesn’t have anything remotely Spanish about it, although it does have a lot of fevered Elvis in it, hey heh, mmm hmmm. Waterhouse goes back to a roughhewn, vampy early 60s milieu with Vincentine, complete with tantalizingly brief, blazing Chicago blues guitar breaks.

He paints a doomed, down-and-out Tom Waits tableau in the next track, Medicine, over a Lynchian guitar twang. Very Blue is the album’s best song, a gorgeous early 60s Orbison noir song complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes….and flurrying early ELO strings. “I remember trying hard just to wake you up,” Waterhouse intones – and the rest is history.

Elvis goes to see the gypsy in Silver Bracelet, set to a tinkly Vegas noir backdrop. Promene Bleu, a quasi title track, makes for a tasty instrumental mashup of Django Reinhardt and oldschool soul with a smoky tenor sax break. The noir tropes reach parody pitch in Fugitive Lover – gruff baritone sax, fire-and-brimstone gospel imagery repurposed as crime jazz, hook-and-ladder guitar riffage, the works.

Waterhouse goes back to primitive mode for Minor Time – as in “was your major, but you made the change” – and then picks up the pace with the quasi-surf Santa Ana 1986. Turns out Waterhouse is a California Man, just like Roy Wood. The album’s final cut is To Tell, the great missing b-side to ELO’s Showdown. If you like the standard noir tropes, if you miss Twin Peaks, this is your jam. Less devoted fans may find this on the monochromatic side. But maybe that’s the way Waterhouse wants it – and if so, that’s cool.