Nick Waterhouse has built his career on being a man out of time, shepherding his audience through the sweaty backrooms of New Orleans bars and the vibrancy of Chicago speakeasies. For four albums he has used his quasi neo-soul/Dr. John worship to develop his own pedigree, contributing LPs that could be inconsistent but always remained entertaining. Waterhouse may not be the strongest album-oriented musician, but combing his career highlights makes for a hefty and impressive setlist.
Even when listening to his newest album, Promenade Blues, it’s hard to avoid the obvious: this is music to dance to. Those low-lit clubs that Waterhouse has crafted his touring schedule around for over ten years are the obvious missing link in this album’s delivery, something his releases have always struggled with. Luckily though, Waterhouse is paying attention.
On his strongest work, 2014s Holly and 2019s self-titled entry, Waterhouse found the right blend of richly mixed album cuts that might be more difficult to reproduce live, and the propulsive retro hits that make up the bulk of his live performances. On Promenade Blues, two tracks in particular, “Place Names” and “Very Blue” evoke the studio worship of Phil Spector. Waterhouse, whose production credits include the great Allah-Las debut, as well as his own, is right at home surrounded by lavish strings and cascading vocal harmonies.
He found similar success with his Brian Wilson/Spector-esque contributions on his last album and knowingly splits his time between his native California influences and those big bar band tunes that he can credit his fame to. The problem is, on this album those are the songs that are lacking Waterhouse’s usual amiability. “The Spanish Look” and “Medicine” appear as by the numbers exercises in a backward-looking filler, existing only to become requisite additions to his live repertoire.
At this point in his career, Promenade Blues is a success, even as a disjointed and confused album. The standouts rank among his best, and the filler, for the most part, are easily ignorable (with the notable exception of the frustratingly silly and out of place “B. Santa Ana, 1986”.)
Waterhouse has made a genuine artistic shift and focused his attention to detail on his weakest material. If his next album can find a way to maintain his lofty production interests with a back-to-basics approach to his more lively elements, he could reinvigorate his entire catalog. For someone like Waterhouse, a return to touring in 2021 can’t hurt either.