New Music, New Perspectives: The Gaslamp Killer, Warpaint and Dwight Yoakam
The Gaslamp Killer (Theo Jemison)
It's all about perspective for the three acts spotlighted in this month's California pop music roundup: The Gaslamp Killer's perspective coming from a near-death and life-altering accident, Warpaint's from a hiatus and growth, and Dwight Yoakam's from looking back over his three-decade career and back to his Kentucky roots.
An angelic child’s voice begins “Instrumentalepathy,” the follow-up to the Gaslamp Killer’s aptly titled 2012 debut “Breakthrough.” And the first single released to preview the album is called “Residual Tingles.” But then, the child is singing “This is the way the world ends,” and those tingles are the constant reminders for the artist of just what has gone on in his life since that debut.
See, in the summer of 2013, William Benjamin Bensussen — the San Diego-raised, Los Angeles-based producer and DJ who uses the Gaslamp Killer name professionally — nearly lost that life. Riding home one night, he flipped his scooter, landed hard and would have succumbed to internal hemorrhaging were it not for astute surgeons slicing open his chest to deal with the damage not long before he would have bled to death.
It left him bedridden, in pain, without his spleen, physically (and pharmaceutically) impaired for months. It also left him in career and artistic limbo, having come just as he was grabbing the spotlight with his inventive sonic senses, as he’d showcased on “Breakthrough,” as well as various productions and collaborations as he became a rising star in the Brainfeeder label community that has formed around electro-ace Flying Lotus. (The Gaslamp Killer was on the recent Brainfeeder bill at the Hollywood Bowl that also featured Flying Lotus, Thundercat and new signee George Clinton's P-Funk.)
So… “Tingles?” Sounds benign, pleasant even. Certainly small stuff in context, especially if you see the photo that ran back then in the LA Weekly showing his post-surgical chest stapled closed from abdomen to sternum. But the tingles, one can assume, are the continuing reminders — both physical and psychological — of the trauma. And it’s not just tingles, but twinges, spasms, jolts, as well as some out-of-body floating — residual or otherwise — that provide much of the language and punctuation of the sound collages TGK has crafted with equal amounts of skill and personality. A few other titles are giveaways: “The Butcher,” “Gammalaser Kill,” “Shred You to Bits.” And make that personalities. Bensussen has tapped a bunch of friends, including singer Gonjasufi and former Jogger member Amir Yaghmai, to help him with this sonic/emotional exploration.
That opening track with the kid’s voice, “Pathetic Dreams,” is a disjointed journey through a state between consciousness and unconsciousness, made in collaboration with Kid Moxie and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. That feeling continues through the album, bouncing from the relatively steady “Tingles” (which could make a good soundtrack piece) to the jarring electro-pings of “The Butcher” (featuring electronic music producer Mophono). Live drums provide a sonic thread — calling it a heartbeat may be too prosaic, though maybe that’s just it, in this case sometimes unsteady, sometimes throbbing or pounding, like blood in a fevered head.
Most striking, perhaps, are the two tracks featuring Yaghmai’s Turkish tambour touches, which also graced a couple of “Breakthrough” pieces, echoing the multiculturally expansive and expanded explosion of the live Gaslamp Killer Experience shows, such as the one at England's noted Glastonbury Festival in 2015. On this album, with “Warm Wind” and “Haleva,” the two create psychedelic exoticisms, dreamy and otherworldly, brittle and, yes, tingly.
There’s something delightfully straightforward, even quaint, about Warpaint’s new song, titled, well, “New Song.” It works on two levels, both as an analogy for a new relationship — the lyrics are very plain in that regard, the meaning right on the surface, kind of sweet and familiar — and as a signal that the L.A. quartet is doing some things new with its songs. This one in particular is marked by its bright melodies, again sweet and familiar, like something a poppy British ‘80s group might have done. Bananarama with better singing.
But before you worry, there is plenty under that surface on “Heads Up,” the album that sports that track. That’s clear from the first song, “Whiteout,” as Stella Mozgawa’s spare drums and Jenny Lee Lindberg’s rubbery bass conjure the dubby, murky mystique that had been the band’s signature sound through its two previous albums. When Lindberg and guitarist Emily Kokai break into a soaring chorus here, the effect is elevating, the pop touches and art instincts complementing and enhancing each other — and setting up the real treat of the swirls of guitars and stuttered rhythms that then dissolve back into the opening spareness.
And that, pretty much, is the new Warpaint, the four women having reconvened after exploring some solo and side projects for a couple of years, recharged, renewed and with new vision of what they can be as a band.
“New Song” is hardly an aberration, though, and is something of a touchstone here. “Don’t Let Go” ventures into dreamy pop, echoed duo vocals reaching back to the early ‘60s or even ‘50s, filtered again through the ‘80s — though when the two sing, ruefully, “It’s the end of us, because of what I’ve done…” the guitars get a little dissonant, out of sync, echoing the emotions.
The sounds and moods cycle. The title song is perky self-affirmation, bubbly even. “By Your Side,” gets heavy-dubby, with spiky organ jabs almost as if heard from the next room. But even the poppiest songs have their dark turns and musical weirdnesses, and even the duskier songs have their sunny pop passages.
Still, for all the new tones and expressiveness, the closing “Today Dear” may be a bit of a shock. It’s a low-key acoustic turn, like something from a lost ‘60s freak-folk act, picked guitars and echoed voices blending in swirls of harmony. It’s lovely. You might even say quaint.
Dwight Yoakam’s getting a lot of attention for the bluegrass-y version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that caps off his acoustic-country showcase “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars.” (And don’t we love that album title?) But we want to spotlight a revision of another classic that’s one of the set’s highlights: Yoakam’s own “Guitars, Cadillacs,” which had first life as the near-title song of his debut album “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” — a full 30 years ago. That’s half his life (he turns 60 next month) and this new take, a frisky frolic, bridges the decades with a wink and a laugh at all that’s happened along the way.
When he wrote the song, he was a pretty fresh arrival in Hollywood from Kentucky (yes, the Bluegrass State), rebelling against urban cowboy slickness and finding a place alongside the resurgent roots and California country revival in this town south of Bakersfield, becoming a golden boy of that scene.
Now having had his own Hollywood career (from an acclaimed co-star role with Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” to a top spot in last year’s Christian drama “90 Minutes to Heaven”) and relationships alongside his music career, he’s returned to his own home state musical roots with affection and bubbling spirit.
The whole album’s about bringing that past new perspective, and “Purple Rain” is understandably the attention-getter. But this revisit to an old friend is the best kind of nostalgia.