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.
Fort Worth Weekly
By Patrick Higgins
Danny Wilkerson has carried many titles: air-conditioner repairman, drummer in a regionally acclaimed pop-rock outfit, band manager, successful real estate broker, cancer survivor, and even the mayor of a small Texas town. He can look back on plenty of achievements, but he’s always been aware of one glaring hole. After a lifetime playing in bands, he had never recorded a solo album.
Finally, after working for five long years, applying the priceless input and tradecraft of top-tier music industry talent and taking advantage of his inexhaustible motivation and a sizeable budget, that album was finally released on Friday. Distributed by Arlington’s SpyderPop Records (Lannie Flowers, Chris Church), Wilkerson is a 10-song collection of Fab Four-inspired feel-good pop that features contributions from such heavy hitters as guitarist Pat Buchanan (Hall & Oates, Don Henley), The Voice winner Josh Kaufman, keyboardist/guitarist Roger Manning Jr. (Beck, Jellyfish), and multi-instrumentalist Joe Seiders (The New Pornographers), as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s strings.
“Lyrically, musically, I wanted [the album] to be perfect,” he said over drinks at the Basement Lounge as electronic music blared. “I had a list of things I’d always wanted to do [on a record] – strings, horns, all of it. I also wanted it to be super-positive. There’s so much divisiveness right now in this country. I just wanted it to make sure everyone couldfeel good and enjoy it. Like I say on the opening track, ‘Everyone loves to love.’ ”
The sunny sentiment in Wilkerson’s words is reflected in his demeanor. His eyes are bright and animated, and his wide, toothy grin is ever-present as he speaks. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his warmth and charisma pull you into his stories as he reminisces. He fondly recounted his childhood and being obsessed with music.
“My friends and I had these homemade guitars strung with kite strings and a drumkit made out of hat boxes,” he said. “We would ‘play’ along with old Beatles records. After I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the course of my life was set. From that moment forward, there was no doubt that was what I wanted to do.”
The day after Wilkerson received his first real drumkit on his 13th birthday, he and his friends made the jump from miming the famous mop-tops to forming actual bands. From a popular high school band called Windswept, Wilkerson was recruited to replace the drummer for the Pengwins, a local Elvis Costello-style pop group, in 1978. The Pengwins toured extensively, opening for marquee acts like Cheap Trick, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the Beach Boys.
Wilkerson was also married right out of high school. Eventually, the time away from his wife, the pull of domesticity, the meager income, and the scarcity of a good meal while on the road weighed heavily on him.
“I loved every second of it,” he said. “But you could count the ribs on my body. We basically survived by sharing packs of hot dogs that we rolled along the hood of the truck while it was running to warm them up.”
Wilkerson left the Pengwins but took over as their manager, a job he could perform closer to home.
He and his wife moved from Fort Worth to the town of Annetta North, just outside of Aledo, where he eventually served as a city councilman for 10 years and mayor for four.
“To me, you have to be involved to make changes and to make a difference,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys that sits back and says, ‘Somebody else will do it.’ I say, ‘Well, I’lldo it.’ ”
That same assertive attitude drove Wilkerson throughout the recording of his album. As with everything in his life, he said, he refused to settle. To craft the songs, he worked closely with celebrated songwriter William “Bleu” McAuley (Selena Gomez, Joe Jonas, Demi Lavato). The tracks, which were recorded half in Boston and half in Los Angeles, boast two separate Grammy-recognized engineers, David Spreng (Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper) and Ducky Carlisle (Buddy Guy, Demi Lovato). Perhaps most proudly, Wilkerson enlisted notable Abbey Road mastering engineer Miles Showell (Rolling Stones, The Police, Queen) to cut Wilkerson to vinyl using the same exact lathe as the 2017 re-issue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“I just hope this record makes people happy,” he said. “The whole thing was to be about love, to be uplifting and positive, and, man, I sure hope it is.”
July 20 may go down this year as Power Pop Christmas because in addition to Nick Piunti's gem above, Danny Wilkerson has today released his debut album and it's also a very strong release. Wilkerson, who has worked with Lannie Flowers in the Pengwins among others over the years, has teamed up with Bleu who produces and co-wrote the songs here, in addition to providing backing vocals. And the power pop royalty isn't limited here to Bleu - Roger Joseph Manning Jr. plays on the record, along with New Pornographers drummer Joe Seiders and Pat Buchanan, formerly of Idle Jets and a couple of outstanding solo records of his own. And it sounds as good on disc as it looks on paper. The bouncy, catchy "Everyone Loves to Love" opens things, sounding like a cross between Bleu and Jellyfish as might be expected, "Enough for Somebody" throws horns and glockenspiel into the mix and is a bombastic delight, and first single "Let it Go Tonight" is an anthemic beauty. And the hits keep on coming: the McCartney-esque "Endless Haze" boasts a wonderful string arranagement, "Too Much of a Good Thing" almost brings to mind Bleu's L.E.O. project, and "Carry the One" is some fine power balladry.
July is almost over and I've only five records in my "Best Of 2018" folder. Of those five, I'm really only sure of three. So let's just say, I've been waiting all year for "Wilkerson." I have the summer doldrums no more.
"Wilkerson" drops on Friday, but I've been playing this baby non-stop since it arrived. With more than a little help from power pop hero Bleu and Jellyfish alum, Roger Manning Jr., Danny Wilkerson serves one gem after another.
Before I get into this wonderful new release, let me get my power pop PR pet peeve off my chest.
Why does every power pop record released in the last 25 years need to carry the weight of sounding like "Big Star, Queen, Raspberries, The Beatles, Cheap Trick and Marshall Crenshaw?" Is it not possible for an artist to be influenced by these great artists and still sound original? The answer is yes!
Danny Wilkerson shows that it is very possible.
The opening trumpet on the very first song, "Everybody Loves To Love," will bring to mind your favorite Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick tune. But once that tune explodes, you will completely forget Bacharach, at least for the next five minutes and you will begin this joyful ride of hooks and harmonies and some of the most heartfelt writing I have heard in ages.
I won't pretend I don't hear a touch of Queen's trademark vocals adding some amazing color to a few tunes, but as a long time fan of Queen, nothing here sounds like anything from any Queen record I love. "Enough For Somebody" is a big blast of 60's AM radio. Think the pop smarts of Abba with balls, but this sounds nothing like anything from any Abba record. "You Still Owe Me A Kiss" has enough hooks to snag a flounder, but does it sound like anyone? Yes, it sounds like a lifetime love of music turned into 3 minutes of pop bliss by Danny Wilkerson. It's Danny Wilkerson.
Each side of the record has a centerpiece. Side One offers "Endless Haze," with nothing but strings behind Wilkerson's voice, as he faces the reality and the down side of the bottle. "When I pour, it rains." This track is simply gorgeous, with more than a touch of heartbreak.
Side Two's killer is "Carry The One, a song Paul McCartney would be proud of, and coming from me, your resident Paul defender, that is a compliment.
Please explore this incredible record. It's special, trust me.
Here's a link to purchase and to check out some clips.
Bravo, Danny Wilkerson.