[Ba Da Bing; 2008]
Devon Williams' timing sort of sucks. As a teenager in the late-1990s/early-00s fronting SoCal punk outfit Osker, he was a good 15 years late for hardcore's salad days and a tad tardy to enjoy the post-Offspring spotlight that lit up the L.A./O.C. scenes. Notable mostly for the youth of its players, Osker was a decent-enough band in the sing-songy, suburban angsty vein-- decent enough, anyway, to get signed by Epitaph. Fast forward 10 years and the hipsters are sample-splicing, tribal-beating, and tapping out ironic 80s tributes on analog synths. Devon Williams? He's just released a solo record of heavily orchestrated pop crooners cobwebbed with Harry Nilsson's wistful romanticism, the Everly Brothers' rhythmic urgency, and the mighty sonic wall of Phil Spector. Dude might want to recalibrate his zeitgeist meter.
Even if it isn't trendy, Carefree, whose emotional centerpiece "Elevator" turns on a corn-syrupy pun (el-le-va-tor = "I love her") and moonstruck vocals, is a long way from beer-drenched basements and might, therefore, come off dilettantish. Not really. Williams has composed pop ditties in his bedroom for years and spent the past one sponging up sweetness and light as guitarist for Lavender Diamond (does it get any less punk than Becky Stark's fairyland fantasia?). Then there's the fact that Williams is no longer a child, and has, to some extent, put away childish things. Carefree's closer, "A Day in the Night" mulls the difficulty of navigating the surprisingly rocky chasm between guy with a band and professional adult: "Once was a musician, but now I just say artist/ 12 years must stand for something."
Not that he totally rejects the direct stage-to-audience channels of punk: "Stephanie City" is an enjoyable couple of minutes of pop pogosticking. Album opener, "Please Be Patient", however, is more typical of Carefree's mid-tempo fare. With a string section arranged by Lavender Diamond's Steve Gregoropoulos and torn from "Then He Kissed Me", cooing girls, and bomping-bomping guys, "Patient" could score a pink tulle, white jacketed prom circa 1963. "Honey"'s rippling 12-string guitar and echo-chambered vocals, is even retro-dreamier, its melody-- like many of Williams' tunes-- recalling those of the new wave era's 60s-pop revivalist, Marshall Crenshaw. But "A Truce" trounces both tracks for sheer stylistic conviction. Conflating god-devotion with girl-devotion and boasting an awesome game of drum and tambourine tag, the song recovers the lost white boy R&B-pop tradition of Dion.
Unfortunately, Williams doesn't sing as well as Dion or those Everly boys. His tenor is slightly nasal and his delivery can be flat and, well, a little callow sounding, distracting from the lush sophistication of Carefree's music. But you've gotta give the guy credit for his superb pen. Like Nilsson and Crenshaw and other men just slightly out of step with their times, Williams ultimately could build a reputation as a fine songwriter.
- Amy Granzin, August 15, 2008