Album of the Week: Sam Wilkes ― “Sings” (2014-2016)

Album of the Week returns with a look at Sam Wilkes' new unreleased compilation.
By    May 14, 2020

Will Schube can play “Every Breath You Take” on Guitar Hero.

The best part about the first Friday of every month is visiting Bandcamp and parting ways with as much money as you can afford. The site waives its servicing fees, so all money earned is split between artist and label. A bunch of labels waive their portions as well, giving 100% of the proceeds to the people actually making music. It’s a way to feel really good without really having to do anything at all. The iteration on May 1st was particularly exciting, because a bunch of artists decided to start selling previously unreleased music. WHY? finally uploaded their seminal Almost Live From Anna’s Cabin, Angel Deradoorian put out a delightful EP, and James Toth dug deep in the vaults for a stellar solo Wooden Wand live show.  My favorite unearthed gem of the day, though, belongs to Sam Wilkes, who has revealed another, entirely unexpected side of himself on “Sings” (2014-2016).

Listening to Wilkes’ music is a singular experience. His interpretation of jazz and pop formats move in such interesting, unexpected ways, that consuming it is a uniquely active experience; but the way he plays with ambient textures and looping melodies allows the work to be enjoyed passively, too. It’s a brilliantly cohered balance, pregnant with restraint but always subtly moving towards a new idea. His solo discography is slim, but covers an impressive range of styles. 

His debut, WILKES, came from a realization that session work wasn’t satisfying his creative urges, and it heavily features his close collaborator Sam Gendel. Although it moves at a different pace than his albums made with Gendel as a duo, it still recalls the chemistry the two share. In fact, regarding WILKES, the bassist said this: “I think Sam Gendel is the greatest saxophone player alive. I hope it makes some people feel that way too. This music was made to be played by him.”

His second LP, Live on the Green, is a tour de force showcase of his skills as a bandleader, leading a few different groups through his compositions. The just released “Sings” (2014-2016) is a different beast entirely, finding Wilkes handling most instruments himself and betraying the work he’s done with artists like Louis Cole and Dean Blunt’s Blue Iverson project. On “Sings,” you can tell Wilkes has spent a career working with pop artists (he wrote a song with Chaka freaking Khan) but only uses basic tenets of that work to inform the album. It’s pop in the loosest sense of the word, and while genreless is often a cop-out for being unable to find better words, Sam Wilkes truly makes music that hasn’t yet been described.

“GIRL” finds Wilkes using wobbly bass synths and a drum machine to foray into the world of love songs. His falsetto is almost silly, but his delivery allows a bit of playfulness to spice up the lyrics. It’s white-boy funk in the best way possible, with the bassline transported straight from the ‘80s; there’s a bag of cocaine stashed in the case.

“HDYK” sounds like Prince covered by a future wedding band, with Brian Green’s guitar bringing the chorus into unrepentant pop-rock territory. The album is playful, but Wilkes doesn’t use its context to cheapen the performances. Imagine the West Coast Get Down covering Blink-182. It’s an inherently absurd idea, but I promise you they’d absolutely rip.

“COMPLIMENTS” is the album’s centerpiece and the best example of Wilkes’ humor and strength as a songwriter. If U2 outsourced lyrics to Sting circa “Every Breath You Take” and hired Washed Out to do a remix, you might get something close to “COMPLIMENTS.” Gendel’s horn is absolutely gigantic during the chorus, screeching into oblivion while giving the track’s upper register a swift kick in the nuts.

“Sings” (2014-2016) would be an absurd album, but Wilkes presents it with forthright seriousness. It’s the sort of thing only a singular artist like Wilkes can produce. It takes guts to put an album like this out, but his craftsmanship obscures any moments of disarray. Wilkes touches on pop, funk, krautrock, and arena rock, landing somewhere in the middle of another galaxy, far from any of these genres. That he’s able to retain the core of these traditional structures while straying so far from them is a remarkable feat. Sam Wilkes has been one of LA’s best bass players for half a decade. He’s one of the most exciting voice’s in experimental jazz, but on “Sings,” he shows he’s more than adept at speaking a new language.

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