Gifts from Strangers, the second album by Atlanta's The White Lights, is a posthumous release from a band that no longer exists. Coming from tracks recorded in June 2001, it provides an look back at a group that wasn't necessarily innovative in any one sense, but whose overall vision remained something a little bit offbeat in the Atlanta Indie Rock scene.
But before I talk about the album in general, let's get one
thing out of the way right up front. Thirteen of the fourteen
tracks on this release are sung by The White Lights' front woman,
Buffi Aguero. Aguero's vocals tend to be nasally and slightly
affected in a gum-snapping, snotty, John Waters kind of way.
In short, it's the type of voice you either love or hate, and
if you hate it, there is no way in hell you're ever going to
like Gifts From Strangers. So go listen to a sample
(click the Audio link, and there are 2 MP3s at the bottom of
the page) and decide for yourself before we go any further.
The album begins with Current Through A Wire, a slightly jazzy, echo-y tune that shows off the haunted, early 60s retro sound in which The White Lights always specialized. To my mind, it could easily be a song by New York's Big Lazy, except that Aguero's voice is way up front in the mix (as it is throughout the album) while the rest of the instruments remain in the background. In contrast, the second song, Evaporate, has an upbeat and slightly garage feel, as if Bobby Fuller and his band had come back and were fronted by a female. Like Fuller's Let Her Dance, the song begins lightly with the guitars at the forefront but then gathers force (and reverb) as the rest of the band joins in. With its energy and drive, Evaporate is a whole lotta fun, and is the best song on the album.
Now, you've pretty much gotten the point. The next four songs sound similar to Current Through A Wire. Still, even though the songs have the same feel, they do have a few distinguishing characteristics. Most importantly, Desperate is highlighted by a really nice vibraphone part, courtesy of Stuart Ellis, and a faster paced drumbeat, courtesy of Mike Poteet. At last, on the seventh song, called Beneath the Sky, the band takes a slightly different tactic. The instrumentation is soft and almost acoustic, and it sounds like a mandolin is playing in the background. Without the claustrophobic reverb of the previous songs, The White Lights sound more country than rock and Aguero's voice doesn't stand out quite so much.
After another similar sounding tune, Roses in my Eyes comes on and is the one song that truly sounds different on Gifts From Strangers. Sung by multi-instrumentalist Ana Balka instead of Aguero, the vocals take a backseat to the atmospheric drones of the band, so that you can fully appreciate the nice melodic interplay between the vibraphone and the guitar. It's a nice tune, and one that hints at how The White Lights may have evolved had they continued.
And then, we're back to more of the same. Sleepyhead is more than a little reminiscent of Evaporate, although I do like the backing violin as well as the simple, hummable tune. Leave the Pieces for Me sounds suspiciously similar to Beneath the Sky, although with more reverb and echo in typical The White Lights style. 1000 Times is a higher-pitched version of Evaporate. And so on, until the album comes to an end.
If you really like The White Lights' general sound, I think you'd really find Gifts from Strangers quite compelling. However, for the more casual listener, it may seem like a few of the tracks could have been cut or at least re-worked in a more noticeable fashion. But, as I stated at the outset, this album is really a retrospective release and I suspect that had the band stayed together, some of these songs may have been dropped along the way. As it is, Gifts from Stranger is perhaps more interesting as a historical artifact than as an actual release, unless you were a fan of theirs all along.