On the heels of the release of his debut EP, Beautiful moonNew York songwriter Will Epstein (then known as High Water) described his changing relationship with Bob Dylan’s music. A lifelong fan, Epstein wasn’t really paying attention what? Dylan sang until adulthood. “Songs work like a charm to summon the spirit,” he said in 2013. “He uses these words to invoke this emotion, and I as a listener can feel the spirit without knowing the incantation.” The composer, multi-instrumentalist and long-time collaborator of Nicolas Jaar has since called his songs incantations, whose circular structures change with each spin. On his new album, WendyEpstein leads the band of participants through an imaginative fusion of space jazz, psych and 1970s soft rock, but his songs don’t always fit the detailed arrangements.
It’s Epstein’s sharpest solo release, following a string of walloped releases. His full-length 2016 Crush and last year Whims sounded somewhat compressed and shrouded in lo-fi haze, the grainy production obscuring Epstein’s arrangements like VHS static. The songs were expanding into something special, but they never quite got there. On WendyEpstein and co-producer Michael Coleman render each instrument in high definition, sculpting and polishing each sound as if trying to make it three-dimensional. The result looks like Eptein is moving from the blurry black-and-white of his past to full-on tech.
In “Morning Will Come,” a distant twang scratches the surface, mixing up an otherwise soft and simple piano ballad. A small disturbance, like a porch door rattling in the wind, puts you in the room with Epstein. It swells into a dry wave, contrasting his clean falsetto and enriching the song with texture. On “Golden,” multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaili spins bright, brittle webs from his guitar, tangling with Epstein’s sax at the song’s climax.
These unexpected details and scene-stealing guest performances embolden Epstein’s tunes, which can be repetitive and a little adventurous. For the most part Wendy, you’ll hear inventive instrumental flourishes that rarely sound the same twice. However, Epstein’s vocals roll along the same course without any unexpected trips. “Oyster Bay” is one of the sleepiest examples. Epstein crafts a shimmering surface of crafted piano, body percussion, keyboards, and soprano sax. But his bleak voice, reminiscent of “the dusty glass of bygone cities,” wears thin. In an album full of dynamic instrumentals, vocals seem structurally basic.