Even when he was a theory-oriented and Mills College-trained electronic minimalist making glitchy records for labels like 12k and F?llt, San Francisco-based artist Christopher Willits had a pop streak. Records like Folding & the Tea and Pollen were created with a software system he constructed that processed his guitar according to certain random patterns, allowing him to improvise along with a systems-assisted version of himself as a duet. It was music as heady and abstract as anything by Markus Popp or Terre Thaemlitz, but it was unfailingly warm, organic, often even tuneful, reminding me of what Microstoria might sound like as a pop band.
So it wasn’t a complete surprise when Willits released “Colors Shifting” on the Ghostly International compilation Idol Tryouts Two. “Colors” showcased his clicky guitar stutters in the context of a shoegazy pop song, complete with vocals. Surf Boundaries includes that song and builds from the same essential idea, using as a foundation the processed guitar music he’s been making for several years and adding a dollop of lush, dreamy pop. Willits’ voice is heard alongside that of Latrice Barnett, and the male/female duet deepens the connection to the classic shoegaze aesthetic. They aim for the round, soft, and asexual sound of M83, preferring gentle spaciness to excursions into more unsettling noise. It’s a hopeful sound, more sunlight than clouds.
Surf Boundaries is a winner in terms of sonics—especially if you’re driven toward Willits’ pseudo-CD-skipping experiments and gauzy drones. His chopping of held tones into confetti-sized fragments adds an air of uncertainty, removing the steady, reassuring beam trained on the horizon. And Willits nicely integrates horns, creamy synths, and more conventional guitar noises, getting the mix just right, so that the voices can ride in like another instrument.
The problem, as so often becomes an issue when experimental musicians go pop, is songs. Or lack thereof. About half of these tracks have vocals, but none can really be called a “song,” at least in the sense of a melody and chords that seem to have a life of their own. The tunes generally stick to evenly spaced quarter notes moving between the same handful of pitches. This in and of itself doesn’t have to be an issue for dream pop, when the vocals are buried in the mix and used as an accent. Even here on “Orange Lit Spaces”, where Willits integrates his guitar cut-ups with similar processing on Barnett’s voice, the effect is powerful. And the stretch between there and the effervescent drone of “Finding Ground”, on to the hissy, mic-inside-the-amp ambience of “Saturn”, is the best run of music on the album.
But then comes “Green and Gold”, letting the air out of the balloon. That such a flabby tune, without the melodic backbone to stand upright, serves as a thematic touchstone of the record—cropping up in slightly different forms on “Colors Shifting”, “Medium Blue”, and “Yellow Spring”—is dispiriting. And these tracks, unlike “Orange Lit Spaces”, want very much to be heard and accepted as songs, but they don’t come across. The experimental-into-pop arc is one to be encouraged, still, and I’d love to see Willits work in this arena again. But Surf Boundaries stands as a sporadically compelling near miss.