Sound Takes: Within Without

By

White Fence
Family Perfume, Vol 1
& Vol 2 (Woodsist)

The first thing you have to accept when you listen to White Fence is that Tim Presley sings like George Harrison. Presley lives in California and was once a hardcore punker, a member of bands called The Nerve Agents and The Strange Boys. In 2004 he co-founded a psychedelic band called Darker My Love. White Fence is his solo project. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, this singing like George Harrison. It’s like a young writer writing like the literary equivalent of a Beatle. It’s not the least bit unpleasant, though; Harrison’s voice is lovely, even when it’s Presley’s. And it’s not an exact copy. This is Harrison in limited range, not his whole singing life, not the Traveling Wilberries, at least not much, more like a collection of splices from “Blue Jay Way” and “Within You and Without You” and just a touch of the Hare Krishna part of “My Sweet Lord,” all electronically manipulated, the way John Lennon fucked with his voice on all of his songs. These Harrison-cum-Lennon particles are combined with snippets from other voices, most of them singers of the ’60s whom we recognize but can’t quite name, and from them Presley builds the vocals on White Fence’s third release, Family Perfume.

Family Perfume is a double album released in two parts. Vol 1 came out at the beginning of April, and Vol 2 is out in May, along with combined versions on CD or cassette. A double LP will be released later in the year, presumably after the first pressing sells out. As with the vocals, the music on both platters feels borrowed, appropriated and/or stolen. It’s all so familiar: smoky guitar twang from a go-go dancing scene in a Russ Meyer film; folky harmonica; acoustic guitar; slide guitar; groovy organ; a galloping beat from a road-tripping-to-Lester’s-farm song; a couple of scratchy chords from an unearthed garage-band gem; a lopsided bridge from a Dylan crony; Buffalo Springfield; Zappa’s Freak Out!; Jefferson Airplane without Grace Slick or Marty Balin; late Mantovani played too fast on a five-string bass through a tube amp with an extra tube. In other words, White Fence seethes with the sounds of the ’60s. Presley has gotten grief for his derivativeness in reviews of earlier releases, and he’s always asked to defend it in interviews, and at times he’s seemed agitated, like when he replied to a Bay-Area music blogger, “What is modern? I feel that White Fence is modern songwriting, but with tools of the past.”

He’s right. White Fence and Family Perfume feel new, very new, despite being saturated with oldness. The novelty is in the composition. Presley’s arrangements are relentlessly odd, full of abrupt shifts and counterintuitive juxtapositions. At the end of side one of Vol 1, a bit of punk storms in and consumes the jangly pop and thrashes about for a while until it too is subsumed by a super-psychedelic breakdown of echo-y voices and bent-and-wiggly time-warp tones. On Vol 2, there’s a moment when everything slows down exactly the way it would if you were to flip the turntable from 45 to 33, and it’s still the same tune, and it still sounds right, only deeper and slower. Family Perfume is loaded with freaky sounds like this—reverberations and feedback swells and every note sung or strummed through all the distorting fuzz boxes a young artist could possibly afford to buy, all of which is perfect for when you’re a joint and two beers into a late Saturday afternoon. Perfect because it’s never scary or annoying, because the bits of tunes Presley builds his songs with sound familiar, and you can tap your toes to them, so you never get lost in all the weirdness. It works because Presley has one of the keenest ears for melody of any artist recording today. His melodies are at times transcendent, or at least euphoric, like the third track on side one of Vol 2, when he sings, “No matter Hell or rain, I’ll take it all, and sing this song, to push along,” a one-two-three-four refrain so simple and sing-songy it’ll cut through dense tangles of present-day worries. Family Perfume is rich with moments that would sound dated on their own. But here, mixed up in Presley’s psychedelic stew, they feel so ultra-mod they’re practically timeless.

 


Joe Miller is the author of Cross-X, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award and the Harry Chapin Media Award in 2007. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Salon, New Letters, Pleiades and Decomp. He's an assistant professor of writing at Columbus State University in Georgia. More from this author →