A mostly effective modernization of ’50s/’60s-era soul and R&B
There’s something really admirable about artists that aren’t afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. On some level, it’s a bit of a risk—if everyone’s know the art and artists from which you are drawing inspiration, it might be more likely that people will accuse you of stealing from those artists or disrespecting the legacy of that art. However, in some cases, the best artists are able to synthesize their obsession with a particular sound or time period with their own distinct and deeply personal voice. Nick Waterhouse is in the process of doing just that.
His most recent project, Promenade Blue, shows that Waterhouse’s pen is sharper than ever and that he is well on his way towards a really exciting sound at the intersection of singer-songwriter lyricism and the R&B of decades well past. Still, though, not every track goes far enough to break through those pesky influences and feel like something entirely new.
The project begins with “Place Names,” a truly fantastic intro. Waterhouse’s amazing vocal performance, the exclaimed “never” refrain and some somber strings all anchor this great track. “The Spanish Look” is, unfortunately, much less interesting. This is Waterhouse at his worst: merely derivative. It doesn’t feel like Waterhouse is saying much of anything here. It feels more like an impression than a new musical perspective.
“Vincentine,” a passionate and horn-driven love song, and “Medicine,” a rumination on the dangers of substance abuse and the fast lifestyle that often accompanies it, both offer an amazing look at Waterhouse’s writing ability. Unfortunately, the following track, “Very Blue,” feels a bit too adjacent to, “The Spanish Look.” It lacks the impact of any of the best tracks on this project, despite Waterhouse’s best efforts at leaning into a lighter form of melodrama.
“Silver Bracelet” proves that Waterhouse never loses focus for more than one track (this is another fun storytelling track about a lost love), and “Proméne Bleu” sees Waterhouse taking a turn for the jazzy. The piano work on this track is ever so slight and impressively delicate, but it makes for a beautiful combo with the equally sparing injections from the horn section.
The deep-voiced “wanted” refrain on “Fugitive Lover” recalls the “never” refrain of the intro track. Both are equally memorable. Waterhouse also delivers a fantastic vocal performance on this one, and his instrumentation has never been more impactful (especially the great horns).
The album concludes with “B. Santa Ana, 1986,” a lovely homage to Cali and a perfect penultimate track, and “To Tell,” an underwhelming closer. This final track is just another unfortunate example of Waterhouse not living up to his whole potential. The “tell me who you’re gonna tell” chorus isn’t very compelling, and none of the instrumentation on this track feels particularly interesting relative to the highest highs on this project.
Promenade Blue is, for the most part, quite good. It’s certainly worth checking out if people are a fan of this sort of throwback sound. Waterhouse’s only weakness is that he struggles to fully differentiate himself from that very sound over the entire runtime of this project. There are absolutely standout tracks, and there are a couple of forgettable ones, but something tells me Waterhouse was more than satisfied by the results of his work on this fifth full-length project. He is clearly deeply passionate about this style. In fact, one of the best parts of Promenade Blue is that that passion is extremely palpable, and maybe that’s more than enough to call this a successful project.