Joe Williams performs his electronically mediated pop as White Williams. Armed with guitars, keyboards, sundry noisemakers and a trusty laptop, Williams is a consummately modern musician, one who catches several loose ends of both his life and 20th-century music with nimble fingers, ultimately tying them together into a neat bow.
Smoke, Williams' full-length debut, is an autobiographical record in a sense, although you wouldn't necessarily know that from its oblique lyrics, mostly occupied by dystopian ruminations on youthful hedonism. Instead, Williams' personal history and his knack for cross-pollination are coded into the music itself. For instance, Williams began his musical career playing in Cleveland noise bands, opening for groups like Sightings, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice and Pink and Brown. His transition from dense, daunting texture to brisk, bubbly melody is summarized in Smoke's opening track, "Danger." It's a chilled-out creeper, unexpected rock guitar shapes emerging from a molten pool of feedback and bass. With "Danger," Williams puts his noise roots definitively behind him. He spends the rest of the album exploring the places where sounds come together seamlessly.
In the two years it took to record Smoke, Williams spent time in Cincinnati, New York City, San Francisco and Cleveland, and he earned a degree in digital design from the University of Cincinnati. The design degree is evident in the record's carefully controlled environment. The spring-wound beat of "Fleetwood Crack" evokes clock gears on the verge of seizing up, while its woozy guitar lines recall those same gears winding down. Think of it as the musical equivalent of high-contrast fonts on a slick, screen-printed flyer. It offers the sort of complementary yet distinct parallelism that's fundamental to smart, snappy design. This elemental balance and juxtaposition is reflected throughout Smoke: "Going Down" ballasts perky guitar bounce with splashy drums and circuit-bent squeals, while "New Violence" throws a curveball at a svelte garage-rock growl with laddering synth-blips that sound like Dan Deacon.
Smoke mines a similar musical itinerancy, too, gathering far-flung influences into its smoldering electro-pop, like a magpie pillaging scraps to build its nest. "In the Club" is wig-fried glam rock. "Headlines" is a sort of Krautrock/new wave hybrid, with its motorik pulse, raygun synths and breezy vocals. The title track is junkyard funk, and "I Want Candy" is a freaking Bow Wow Wow cover. But, with the exception of "Lice in the Rainbow," you have to listen closely to hear this diversity, because it's so deeply assimilated into Williams' own deliberately staged aesthetic. Williams' music bears a passing resemblance to Hot Chip, although he emphasizes patient melodic development over instant gratification: If Hot Chip sticks melodies in your head like a hatchet, then Williams tightens them around your throat like a garrote. They take a moment to resolve from their prismatic trappings. One never gets the sense that he's tacked an Afro-pop guitar line onto a track for novelty's sake; instead, he seems to build outward from genre tropes toward a uniformity of style that bends cultural significance into personal significance. In this way, White Williams' Smoke is a distinctly 21st-century kind of music, equal parts zeitgeisty and fun.
White Williams plays Local 506 Thursday, Feb. 7, with Rings and Ecstatic Sunshine. The $10 show starts at 9 p.m.