What if we wake up in 2013 and all the cool kids are listening to Mel Tormé? It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. R&B disciple Nick Waterhouse makes a studied but lively revival of the kind of music the Velvet Fog specialized in during his younger days, jazzy but rockin’. Back then, it was considered pretty cool, and to Waterhouse, it still is.
“When I was a teenager I started to figure out, hey, some songs didn’t ever make it to CD,” says the L.A.-based Waterhouse. Now 26, Waterhouse discovered 45s in high school, but the responsible, college-bound vinyl enthusiast kept his music ambitions under his hat, even after finding some success playing guitar with a snotty, Spencer Davis Group–like outfit called Intelligista. The band won a contest and ended up recording at the vintage-audio-outfitted Distillery Studio in Costa Mesa, just ten blocks from where he grew up. He would return to the studio again and again, putting to tape the tunes that became his debut, Time’s All Gone, released earlier this year.
It was a move to San Francisco for college and stints working at Rooky Ricardo’s Records between 2005 and 2010 that opened his ears to a people’s history of American music: “I started as a customer and spent enough time in there that I started picking up odd jobs for the owner. He would say ‘You have this big hold stack, if you do this favor for me, I’ll give you these holds.’ One day, he gave me a key so I could lock the store.”
A fan of music historian Peter Guralnick’s books, Waterhouse would while away slow days soaking up soul and R&B from Maxine Brown to the Marquees, but also gaining a wider understanding of garage rock’s place in American music. His musical journey was largely unguided by a scene—“That was important because I feel like then I wasn’t following some sort of dogma. I was more just cycling through the great weird wilderness of American music that ended up on 45s from the early ’50s through the early ’70s.”
At the shop, his boss noted how Waterhouse was beginning to listen like a musician, which boosted the young musician’s confidence. “I realized I could just do this,” Waterhouse says. Finding it difficult to translate his vision for local rockers, Waterhouse decided to make his own record with help from friends in the similarly retro Allah-Las. The result was “Some Place,” a 7" single self-released in 2010. “Having that record suddenly set the agenda for anyone who wanted to work with me,” says Waterhouse, whose ragtag group, dubbed the Tarots, has been on the road for roughly a year now.
Time’s All Gone is sophisticated stuff that sounds effortless, meticulously recorded and lacquer-mastered to analog specs. It also bucks the soul-revival trend, flirting instead with early rock & roll and R&B that swings. Rollicking barrelhouse vamps power “Is that Clear,” while Waterhouse croons like an early ’60s heartthrob on the tambourine-etched ballad “Raina.” What’s more, Waterhouse makes good on that garage education with a soul send-up of the classic made famous by Them, “I Can Only Give You Everything.”
But one thing Waterhouse wants us to know is that his attention to detail and his encyclopedic knowledge of soul, R&B and obscure record labels doesn’t make him a nerd. He’s just passionate. “I am so haunted by this music that obviously I want to figure out how they did it.”
Nick Waterhouse plays Lincoln Hall Wednesday 10. Time’s All Gone is out now.