By John Borack
Sometimes an album is just so good – so perfect in nearly every way – that I feel the need to shout it from the rooftop. So please excuse me for a moment while I climb to that rooftop to talk about about the release of Wilkerson, Danny Wilkerson’s most excellent 10-song debut. This is a record that floored me on first listen, and one that should be a cause for celebration for fans of well-crafted, supremely melodic, lyrically meaningful pop music. Wilkerson is a Texas native who has been making music for many years (most notably as a drummer/vocalist for the power poppin’ Pengwins) and he’s been hard at work on his solo bow for several years. Great care has been taken with every aspect of this record’s creation, from the deeply felt songwriting, magnificent performances, and gloriously expansive arrangements and production down to the pristine-sounding mastering. (Miles Showell – who’s worked with the Beatles, Stones, Who, Police, and Queen – mastered Wilkerson at Abbey Road Studios, using the same lathe on which the Sgt. Pepper reissue was mastered on in 2017.)
Wilkerson was more than ably assisted during the songwriting and recording phase of the record by singer/songwriter/producer Bleu McAuley, whose imprint is all over the powerfully intoxicating songs. The album is a bi-coastal affair: half was recorded at Bleu’s studio and Taylor Locke’s Velveteen Laboratory in L.A., while the balance was tracked in Boston at Ducky Carlisle’s studio with Carlisle mixing, as well as drumming on a few tunes.
Other luminaries who offer vocal and instrumental support on Wilkerson include Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (Jellyfish); Joe Seiders (The New Pornographers); Jesse McGinty (who’s played with Pharrell Williams and Meghan Trainor); the Boston Symphony Strings; and Pat Buchanan (Idle Jets, Hall & Oates, Cyndi Lauper, Don Henley).
But while the contributions from Bleu and the album’s supporting cast are certainly impressive, it’s Danny Wilkerson’s vision – always positive, upbeat and thought-provoking – that makes this album the special gift that it is. Influences are plentiful – ranging from the Beatles, ELO and Burt Bacharach to Jellyfish and various ‘70s and ‘80s hitmakers – but they’re never overpowering; rather, they’re sweet little musical nods to those who have inspired Wilkerson and Bleu.
Each and every song here is fed by peerless musicianship, delicious melodies and thoughtful lyrics, all of which mesh perfectly with Wilkerson’s pure, emotive lead vocals. The leadoff track, “Everybody Loves to Love,” begins with a Bacharach-inspired flugelhorn bit by McGinty, then moves on to a jaunty, Jellyfish-informed verse which feeds into a chorus that just may have been inspired by Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” But before the listener gets too comfortable, the tune takes a quick detour into more rocking, almost surf music territory, with Wilkerson intoning, “I’m just looking for a sitar and a Hofner/a Rickenbacker and a giant stack of ‘ahhhs’” – which, of course, is followed by giants stacks of said “ahhhs,” delivered in a near Queen-like fashion. From there, the song takes a mellower turn, with Roger Manning’s ethereal keyboards taking center stage until the song winds to a conclusion. Not unlike one of Paul McCartney’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s episodic pieces, “Everybody Loves to Love” is a wonderfully evocative piece of work that neatly folds the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s into one five-minute tune that sounds wholly current. And that’s just the first song!
From there, the hits just keep on comin’ – and as a matter of fact, the next number, “Enough for Somebody,” sounds like a surefire smash to these ears. It’s a joyous romp that fairly explodes from the speakers, and is hooked by McGinty’s horns, a wonderful melody and Wilkerson’s confident vocals. “Endless Haze” is a powerful, cautionary tale of drowning in the bottle, with some clever lyrical turns (“When I pour, it rains” and “I can’t outrun my makers mark”) and an “Eleanor Rigby”-inspired string quartet as the sole instrumental accompaniment. “You Still Owe Me a Kiss” is another full-bodied pop song with an unshakeable chorus, and “When Your Number’s Up” is a lovely rumination on life and death, with a quirky little mid-song interlude that recalls McCartney’s “Woke up, got out of bed…” bit on “A Day in the Life.”
Side two (if you purchase the LP version, which is recommended – it sounds wonderful) begins with the ebullient “Too Much of a Good Thing,” which sounds like some sort of perfect world intersection of Supertramp, 10cc and ELO at their poppiest. “How She Lost My Heart” has an insistent melody and a distinctly psychedelic vibe, with Seiders laying down a “Ticket to Ride”-styled drumbeat throughout. A vaguely McCartneyesque influence is apparent on the mid-tempo “Carry the One” (with a strong vocal performance from Wilkerson and some tasty massed backing vocals), while the album’s first single, “Let it Go Tonight” is a strong contender for Best of Show honors. With an acoustic guitar figure reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and some sharp slide guitar action from Bleu, the tune has a nice message (“there is good in this world and we’ll take it tonight”) and glides along on another memorable melody.
Wilkerson closes out with an absolutely gorgeous, “circle of life” number titled “Comes in Waves.” Over nothing more than a beautiful Roger Manning piano figure and Isaiah Gage’s perfectly placed cello, Wilkerson (with Manning also providing some beautiful backing vocals on the bridge) turns the song into an emotional, near-spiritual experience. Simply lovely, and a fitting capper to a wonderful album that truly is a feast for the ears. Many pop-rock fans will no doubt be adding Wilkerson to their list of the finest records of 2018. Grade: A Available at www.spyderpop.com or www.dannywilkerson.com.