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Wan Williams

White Williams, The Ottobar, Feb. 8

Jefferson Jackson Steele
DISCONNECTED: White Williams lightens up at the Ottobar.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 2/13/2008

With a stillborn crowd, an already overblown internet darling, and inconsistent house sound, last Friday night at the Ottobar should have been much worse than it was. We didn't walk out at the end of the night feeling terribly full or nourished, but at least we had some pop in our step.

Which is more than can be said about prior White Williams outings. After seeing the Cleveland-based indie-pop dude, born Joe Williams, twice already in the past five months--once with Girl Talk at 2640 Space, where he had the relative magnetism of ball bearings, and once in New York, considerably better--we wanted to see if he could finally deliver something satisfying in headliner mode, or if he had a mode that went at all beyond cocksure geek hipness--which looks a lot like disaffection. Really, we just wanted to see if he could make us care this time.

Williams' live disappointment is all the more frustrating because his songs are actually good, lounge-paced numbers that veer between more-catchy-than-banging Hot Chip and Here Come the Warm Jets Brian Eno. They're slow post-party new-wave etchings that don't have their heart in any one place--laptop beats that don't have much middle ground between heavy thump and not-really-there, vocals that are kinda cheeky/kinda seductive, hip-weaving bass grooves, and guitar that riffs and distorts in the same thought. It doesn't nearly live up to the internet drool his 2007 debut album, Smoke, has been inciting, but it's solid pop.

Live, Williams is a three-piece setup: himself at stage-center between a keyboard on one side and a PowerBook and a mixing board on the other. On either side of him is his bassist and guitarist, both kind of looking like they're holographs beamed in from respective empty rooms, but both really good at what they do. Williams himself looks beamed into the room from New York synth-pop band x, circa 1981. When he's moving onstage, it's utilitarian, from stage-front to keyboard to computer to mixing-board tweak. On a couple of numbers he plays a 32-key melodica. Nice touch.

But Williams doesn't really connect with the crowd, or even try to for that matter. It's not terribly awkward, but the songs weren't coming through very well either, and that doesn't add up to anything engaging. The slippery hook of "In the Club" is irresistible in any case, and the kraut-rock drive of "New Violence" is engaging, but Williams' voice tended to get buried in the mix, leaving things colorless.

At least by that time, the Ottobar had figured out the sound. Two bands earlier, Rings, a New York all-girl trio that's riding high on the Paw Tracks/Animal Collective hype wave, delivered a set that was at least half dog whistle. It got a little better during Ecstatic Sunshine, which got loud and furious this time around, doing the Black Dice happy-noise thing like the recently re-formed band started it. Given ES has only been at its new sound for a few months, it'll be interesting to see where it goes from here. As for Williams, well, we'll still bump it while we're doing the dishes.

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