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Sam Wilkes could be a music historian if he wasn’t one of the world’s greatest bassists. If you hear him speak, you’re apt to get a passionate education on modern music. If you listen to his songs, you’ll hear an auteur distilling different styles into a powerfully original concoction. Wilkes has labeled his new album, Driving, his “indie rock record,” which is true to a degree. While it may touch on the indie rock of Wilkes’ youth – like Wilco and Broken Social Scene – Driving also incorporates influences from funk, ambient, jazz, and pop.

Wilkes emerged in 2018, when he and fellow Sam (Gendel), dropped Music for Saxofone & Bass. It entered the classic canon of new LA jazz upon its release, offering a lo-fi, experimental counterpoint to the joyous, uproarious compositions of West Coast Get Down alumnus like Kamasi Washington, Ronald Bruner Jr., and Ryan Porter. While emerging as a fascinating composer, Wilkes continued to work as a bassist for hire, contributing to projects from Maggie Rogers, LEAVING Records’ Matthewdavid, Neal Francis, and Rufus Wainwright.

Wilkes handles most instrumentation on the project. He likes to record and release immediately, which makes Driving an outlier in his discography. This was due, in part, to Wilkes’ perfectionism. A version of the album was done by the time COVID hit, but it wasn’t until he took some time away from it for a few years that he gained a new perspective for what it was missing. A tweak to the mixing process led him to the finish line.

Driving does sound like a Sam Wilkes album, but with its relatively new rock structures, he chose to forego using an imprint like LEAVING to share the project. Instead, he released it under his own, recently started label as a way to distinguish this project from anything else in his discography. Driving feels like a distinctly hard-dropping curveball. See the Louis Cole-assisted “Own,” which shines in the sunlight of acoustic guitar layers, Wilkes’ deft falsetto, and a charging drum part that gives the song a second-half gallop. “Again, Again” features Daryl Johns, Thom Gill, and Tamir Barzilay, tapping into ‘70s prog grooves and the atmospheric yet melodic guitar melodies found on early U2 records.

With new genre exploration and a host of collaborators, it would be easy for Wilkes to lose his own voice in the project. To combat this, he recorded the album like his more jazz-oriented projects. He wrote a bunch of sketches, sent them to friends with little directional prompts, and used what they came up with, sometimes reorganizing their submissions, and sometimes letting them live as they were dreamed up by players like Craig Weinrib, Chris Fishman, Dylan Day, and more. The resulting album sounds a bit like rock era Eno (“Folk Home”), a Grizzly Bear country album (“Hannah Song”), pastoral Sparklehorse (“Driving”), and more.

Wilkes tweaks with the intimately familiar, distorting it in his own delightfully warped vision. This is music from someone who has spent years obsessing over every style under the sun. It represents his vast interests, a delightful collision of sonic fluidity. It is the joy of music discovery unfolding live, cataloging his obsessions as he discovers them. “There’s nothing better than stumbling on an idea that works,” he explains. “It just makes me smile.”

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