Too often what’s lost on Sans is any kind of authenticity.
Keller Williams is a unique performer with a jubilant approach to music. He plays guitar in a folk-jam-bluegrass style and (usually) sings in a winsome tenor, often evoking a combination of Grateful Dead ease, country-gospel earnestness and folk simplicity. On Sans, however, Williams forgoes singing altogether, putting together a completely instrumental album that combines his acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, percussion and various digital samples and loops. The result is a whimsical array of jammy tunes that don’t quite know what category they belong to. It’s not bluegrass, it’s not really funky and it’s not mainly electronic music. And without Williams’ voice out front, well, it doesn’t sound much like his other records.
The appeal of it, perhaps, is in the way it works as a driving and forceful kind of melody making. Williams’ guitar constantly creates small patterns that hook your ears for a kind of groove-melody. The melodies aren’t big strong things that could carry lyrics but little bits and pieces that, put together, provide just enough interest to keep you head bopping.
For example, “Roshamboagogo” is just 2:48 long, but it travels from a go-go groove (Williams is from Virginia, not too far from D.C., where that genre of slow-funky percussion got its start) to a short acoustic guitar breakdown that creates a guitar lick melody, which then gives way to a synthy-sounding horn section portion of the tune. None of it is harmonically sophisticated, rhythmically complex or melodically unique, but there is casually grooving attitude about it all that makes you want to get up and play along.
Percussion also carries “Gracias Leo,” with a more multi-layered set of digital conga and bongo hits locking together into a fanciful-sounding almost-Latin groove. The guitar pops and the acoustic bass plays with a popping percussiveness as well. What sounds like a ‘70s ghostly synth solo gathers more interest, and then the bass solo comes back to set up some cool stop-time effects.
Tunes like these follow a path that winds and often doesn’t repeat, developing in one direction without return. Typically, the rhythm section starts things off, as on “Fat B.” Guitar, bass, and percussion get your ears set up for a certain kind of groove, with Williams in particular dazzling with lots of little harmonics and scrapes and figures, but the main interest is rhythmic and textural. T\here is a sudden change in the harmonic figure at the half-way point, and a bass break followed by a “horn section” melody that works as a kind of digital big band section, with simple parallel harmonies and a flute-like synth counter melody. Do these shifts in musical direction hang together as composition? Is there a logic or art to them?
Too often what’s lost on Sans is any kind of authenticity. “The Cabella Vibe” features none of Williams’ guitar. Rather, it uses a sampled drum groove that sounds vaguely Tribe Called Quest-y, grooving vibes that might have been from a Roy Ayers track, a funky acoustic bass part, then synth-flute playing the simplest possible line. Recorded children’s voices become a refrain in the second part of the tune, as the groove flattens out and morphs a couple of times. No doubt it was fun to play around with this in the recording studio, but the result is . . . a kind of amateurish trance music that seems like it flew in from another project. Other tunes like “Newness” are a ray of sunshine by comparison, with its bluegrass-style picking and relative melodic sense, but even here you can’t really get away from the things it has in common with “Cabella”—the plastic samples that pass for the “lead” sections and the distraction of the synthesizer parts.
Williams is at his best when he leans most heavily on the prettiest side of his guitar-craft. He has often spoken about discovering Michael Hedges, the new-agey guitar wizard, and Williams seems most natural in that kind of mode, even if he is not the virtuoso that Hedges was. So “Sorry from the Shower,” with its pretty acoustic harmonics and fluttering strumming and picking is really the best of Sans. There are no bogus horn sections, no extraneous percussive clatter, no pretension to being kind of funk or kind of hip-hop or kind of anything else than a guy in love with his guitar. That might be enough.
Okay, it isn’t enough. Keller Williams isn’t Michael Hedges or Jerry Garcia or John Scofield or John Mayer or even John Kadlicek. At least not as a guitarist he isn’t. He’s fun and he’s a joy and he sings with a jubilant spirit and he’s better than this record, no matter how much he may want to make the kind of record he’d dance to or trance to or enjoy as the soundtrack to his life. Those records are out there, but this isn’t one of them.