Juan Wauters has been called "one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive songwriters in New York today" (by the New York Observer), "New York's greatest songwriter" (by Impose magazine), and "one of New York's most compelling singer/songwriters" (by Spin magazine).
That praise would suggest a few things about the native Uruguayan, none of which appears to be true.
The plaudits for his songwriting hint at something aggressively sophisticated and artful, but the songs on his new Who Me? are uniformly easy-going - simple, warm, and seemingly effortlessly charming. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't deserve the great notices; it's just that they're utterly devoid of pretension.
And as much as he's identified as a New Yorker, Wauters has a fondness for the Quad Cities and institutions such as Ross' and Harris Pizza.
When he returns to the area on June 19 for a show at Rozz-Tox, it will in fact be a homecoming of sorts. Wauters recorded Who Me? (his second solo album after a run with The Beets) last year with Ian Harris at Futureappletree Studio Too, and he stayed at nearby Rozz-Tox during the two weeks of recording.
Wauters said in a phone interview last week that after doing a Daytrotter.com session in September or October, he decided to make Who Me? in the Quad Cities and returned about a month later. "I wanted to do a record right away," he said. "It's a little complicated, because I had been playing the songs for a while, and I didn't have that much time, and I didn't know the studio, so it was a little bit rushed." Although he'd tracked some demos, many of the arrangements were done in the studio.
Except for some sax on the closing track, Wauters played everything himself, and the brief songs initially feel like sketches with bare-bones instrumentation. (As Pitchfork.com noted, the album "features 13 songs, all of which are less than three minutes long and several of which are less than two, played on about as many chords. Most of them are arranged for acoustic guitar, electric bass, and other things that can be rehearsed in the living room without bothering the neighbors.")
Despite Wauters' admiration of the production style of Dr. Dre and the Doggystle album, his underplayed folk and brevity reflect a choice. "I don't like songs to linger," he said.
Yet this wispy aesthetic creates the strong vibe of a different era. As Impose wrote: "He is romantic and wistful, and the sound has a yellowy tinge, as if it was thrown through a time warp across continents."
The songwriting reveals itself slowly. The vocal phrasings of "I Was Well," for example, are pleasantly lulling, yet the words deftly draw a multifaceted portrait of depression - of torpor, of being too wrapped up in one's own brain, and of the view from outside that mind: "I've been thinking about sinking into bed. / Don't go out. / See the world from my pillow. / They say I'm not well. / They tell me to find me a hobby."
On the 56-second "Misbehave," Wauters shows how to turn piano, drums, and voice into something compelling if abrupt. There's the gentlest groove and a trickle of thoughts, and then it's gone - a fleeting idea captured, with nothing extraneous.
That shows some of the difficulty Wauters is likely to encounter moving forward with music as a full-time endeavor. Despite the acclaim he's received, there's something ephemeral about his songs beyond their durations. There's no denying that "Grey Matter," for instance, is gorgeously catchy and warm, but the singer/songwriter's no-linger rule has the commercial downside of ... not lingering.
"I love to do it, and I want to do nothing else but this," he said of recording and playing as a career. "But I also want to do it my own way. I don't know if the two can coexist."
For a sense of what "my own way" means, consider that when I talked with him on June 4, he was working on his third solo album.
"Actually, I just started," he said. "I wanted to record everything live with other musicians in the studio ... and also do different versions laying tracks. And then after I have everything, choose. I'd like it to be a combination of the two. ... I want this one to be a little more of a mixtape, a little bit all over the place."
Five live songs have been finished, along with three multi-tracked tunes. And what's his timeline?
"We leave New York on the 17th," he said, "but I'm trying to finish a record before I go."
Juan Wauters will perform on Friday, June 19, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com). The 9 p.m. all-ages show also includes GOSH!, The Multiple Cat, and Us-Mode, and admission is $6 to $12.
For more information on Juan Wauters, visit JuanWauters.com.