The ‘80s seems to have become almost a fetish for today’s artists, with constant nods to Autotune, TR-808 drum machines, and analog synthesizers popping up in every corner of contemporary electronica and hip-hop production. At one point, this was a fresh way to reimagine the washed up sounds of a generation for an audience that still loved them. Now, this idea has come full circle, with the “updates” sounding increasingly trite and, as Brooklyn-based musician Alan Wilkis demonstrates on his latest EP Pink and Purple, the electro-funk of the ‘80s in its purity sounding refreshingly new.
Wilkis debut LP Babies Dream Big was an impressive entry into music that saw the producer experimenting with a range of sounds and styles that produced exciting, if sometimes unfocused, results. On his latest EP, Wilkis has settled down for the moment on the beloved but treacherous ‘80s electro genre, and the self-imposed limitations on his sonic palette have helped him to likewise refine the music he creates within them. He manages to avoid the potential pitfalls by consistently making room for his own personality. Wilkis doesn’t seem to be updating the genre itself, he is updating the taste of its music—these are songs that sound like they could have been made in the ‘80s in terms of technology, but theses dope jams could never have been written in the ‘80s. It is this commitment to the genre that gives Pink and Purple a warm familiarity while still sounding like nothing I’ve ever heard.
The first thing that separates the six tracks from their source material is the issue of repetition, a problem that has plagued electronic music since its beginnings. Wilkis maneuvers around this trap by replacing redundant loops with constantly evolving soundscapes, each song moving in a variety of different directions without sacrificing coherence. This leads the listener into completely unexpected, but welcome sonic territory in a way that feels natural and effortless for Wilkis. The constant improvisational riffs that fill the gaps in the album support this feeling and seem right at home amidst the funk part of electro-funk. Along these lines, he also displays a penchant for guitar and synth solos with an aptitude that conjures a Discovery-era Daft Punk. These sound as though they are as natural as breathing to Wilkis, and his ear for timing and melody is quite remarkable, pointing to the real star of Pink and Purple: taste. Both the lyrics and the music in these tracks are meaningful and subtly complex, without ever feeling heavy-handed. This allows Wilkis to juggle a number of layers of surprising intricacy in each song without stepping on any toes—the beats making room for the harmony, the harmony letting the melody shine, and the melody stepping out at times for the words to come through. The result is a barrage of clever sounds with a rare clarity guided by Wilkis’s own refined ear.
“Gotta Get You Back” is a standout on the album, fondly recalling the roller-heaven of Venice Beach in Xanadu while leaving behind the tackiness (but not the guilty pleasure) of the infamous soundtrack, instead favoring feel-good stylings on the keys and ultra-electronic beats that somehow achieve a very natural groove. This blend of the stylized sounds of electro with funk and rock’s reliance on the natural feeling of the music shines throughout, for example in the way “Snuggle Up to Get Down” moves seamlessly between tight, vocoded harmony, and unadulterated singing so that the voice becomes a sort of synthesizer in itself. This, of course, highlights Wilkis’s simultaneous commitment to the robotic sounds of the genre and understanding of its need for moderation in a way that the vast majority of our Autotune generation does not. In another show of musicianship, “Dance With You’s” subtly challenging and unconventional rhythmic changes and chord progressions betray an almost classical understanding of harmony and rhythm without ever feeling formalized. This is suggestive of the central idea that perhaps underlies the success of the whole album: Wilkis’s keen understanding of musical construction evident in the songs of Pink and Purple could be dissected endlessly on a formal level, but their true merit lies in the fact that they are best enjoyed for the way they feel, achieving the balls-to-the-wall sense of fun that keeps people returning to the ‘80s at all.
- Adam Waller