The opening seconds of Nick Waterhouse's "Say I Wanna Know" feature a soft shake of percussion, a few guitar strums and then a drum thud, like Frankenstein lurching in his shoes across a wood floor. The saxophone drags and swoops. "Have you ever made the best of a bad situation?" the singer begins in a reserved, cool-for-cats voice. "Like you're not even going to make it past the corner of the block?" At the end of the first verse, all of the instruments rise in a crescendo and then drop out to make room for an emphatic drum kick. Then his backing girls, The Naturelles, begin to sing: "Say, I wanna know...."
As with the rest of Waterhouse's debut, Time's All Gone, the song is a wonder to hear, but not necessarily because he's one of the first prominent revivalists to mine the cross-fusion of rhythm & blues and early rock 'n' roll that flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s. (Numerous garage rock bands, from The White Stripes to Black Lips, have traversed this area, but usually by emphasizing the garage rock, not the R&B.) Like fellow L.A. musician Mayer Hawthorne and his debut single "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" (which replicated early '70s soft soul so closely that many mistook it for the real thing), Waterhouse uses production tricks to achieve a hissy mono-like sound reminiscent of mid-20th century popular music. But it sounds stranger and more delectable than a virtual copy.
Waterhouse has helped his cause with a series of smart moves. He pressed his debut single, 2010's "Some Place," in such limited quantities that collectors fond of retro-groove imprints like Daptone and Timmion are now trading it for over $100. He signed with Innovative Leisure, a rising label whose founders used to work for the popular indie label Stones Throw. He has a "hep," Mad Men-like wardrobe that charms men's fashion magazines such as GQ. And, of course, "Say I Wanna Know" has already been licensed for a popular Acura car commercial.
None of this changes how weird Time's All Gone sounds. If it isn't the unsettlingly empty silences that emerge in the middle of the songs like "Raina" and "Is That Clear," or the sometimes off-key vocals, then it's the sight of a man in his mid-twenties, with limited musical tools but plenty of panache and inspiration, trying to commune with ghosts of the past, and transforming his listeners in the process.