It’s really easy to drink the Spencer Kilpatrick Kool-Aid.
The Reno-based singer-songwriter has an amazing, even intoxicating handle on pitch-perfect period strut – in most cases, Stax-infused soul – and a smoky, emotion-damaged croon that accents and accentuates it perfectly. While his voice sounds like a cross-hatching of a bluesy John Mayer and Bill Withers, his solo work, which has dribbled out online in fervent spasms, has called to mind contemporaries like Amos Lee. (Some might say Kilpatrick is the more consistently engaging of the two.) And Kilpatrick excels both in front of and behind the soundboard; in 2019, he captured with incredible period accuracy the wonderful soul-folk debut EP from chanteuse Rachael McElhiney, who performed alongside Kilpatrick in Reno’s now-defunct Failure Machine.
Kilpatrick’s latest venture, MELK, which self-released its debut EP online this week, is an entirely different beast. The quartet debuted last summer in almost mysteriously quiet fashion with one song, “Listen,” which highlighted Kilpatrick’s boozy delivery – he often sounds like he’s a few (maybe a few too many) rounds in and flirting with a heady, Dulli-an mix of lust and remorse. But MELK is no solo affair. Bassist Adam Carpenter offers infectious blues-scale dexterity and a molasses-thick bottom end. Elsewhere, the able drummer Kris Stosic flashes knowing nods to the past – for example, look no further than the jangly 60s-pop tambourine that tickles the backbeat on “Take All of My Time” and “Listen.”
Then, there’s lead guitarist Steve Widmer, who recorded the affair with minimal overdubs. (Word is only vocals weren’t cut live as the band played.) Kilpatrick is a melody man and soars when he’s stitching the seductive flesh onto his earwig-skeletons. Widmer is a man who works with color, as is readily evident when he loses himself, Stevie Ray Vaughn-style, in the incredibly emotive, even frenzied solos of “Exhausted” (yowza!) and “Alright.” But Widmer is not a scene-stealer. On the buoyant romp “Take All of My Time,” where Kilpatrick occasionally seems tripped up by the band’s surging energy, Widmer mostly provides occasionally glittered notes of reverb. On other offerings, his almost-restrained measures during verses serve as a counterpoint to Kilpatrick’s hangdog timbre.
Much of the EP has been kicking around Nevada and the Left Coast for some time now. Kilpatrick developed “Take All of My Time” and “Alright” years ago with a Joan & The Rivers side-project dubbed The Cameltones. The sensual “City,” whose bass line is practically an innuendo in itself, was recorded but never released by Failure Machine. The album-closing “Listen” comes from Kilpatrick’s time in soul outfit Megan Moore & The Franchise. This stuff, in short, has been vetted properly; only “Exhausted,” which feels like it was cut in some smoky jazz joint after the crowd stumbled home full of sex and drink, is “new.” For an EP that’s mostly culled from other periods, though, it sounds alarmingly of-the-moment, even if that moment mimics Detroit in, say, 1965.
For me, though, the moments that really, truly sell you on the EP are ones like those that fall a little bit past halfway through “Listen.” “I guess you don’t want me like I want you/ I want you,” Kilpatrick spits, almost defiantly, and the band descends into a sojourn complete with funkified guitars (is that a hint of a wah-wah pedal?) and a light-footed percussive thrust. It’s followed by a moment of relative calm until Kilpatrick barks “Believe me when I tell you/ I’m moving on” and gives a tired roar, then the whole thing keeps driving, ever-present, ever-forward.
Kilpatrick is no stranger to nailing his own expectations. (Christ, “You Feel Like Nevada To Me,” another solo, online offering, would make most folk balladeers soil their drawers in intimidation.) With MELK, he has found bandmates that live up to his high bar. If the quartet’s self-titled EP is an indication of what’s to come, I, for one, say we embrace the future.