As you might expect from an album whose recording was built around a base of lead vocal, Something Better doesn’t offer the traditional points of reference you might find in what is ostensibly rock and roll music (here loosely defined as guitar, bass, drums, vocals). Hartley C. White (and Friends – basically an OSR house band if one existed, and I’ve said that a bunch of times now with the “and Friends” latter-day OSR lineups) begins with the voice, in what is known as a “Who-pa-zoo-tic” style, “a non-classical music utilizing a broken rhythm” (thank you, press kit!). Indeed, the rhythm is off, constantly, and that’s the point – it just takes some getting used to. Until your ear attunes, it sounds like the players are just trying to keep up, to keep themselves together as the voice, a much more dynamic rhythmic instrument than is probably given credit, capable of virtuosic flights of movement, does its thing, its prerecordedness a blank canvass on which the rest of the band can take it and expand upon and clarify it.
White, a native of Queens, New York, and Kingston, Jamaica, drops verses in an almost slam-poet style, certainly not rap, his words taking on an interpretive performance quality as if each syllabic run or pause is intended to serve the meaning of the work. The musicians backing him follow the logic of the words, often in bursts reminiscent of the stop/start lyrics. The music takes on distinct jazz qualities, sometimes hovering behind White’s exhortations in ambient accompaniment but mostly cutting a loose path among the voice, taking on an almost parallel logic to the base recordings. Here is where your ear needs to be prepared – the seeming wobbliness of the work is jarring at first, but once you’ve got the idea, the just-slightly-off-center superimposition causes a lilting effect that’s actually quite charming. The vocals and the music blur together, and only when they distinctly separate can the line be drawn between them. Certainly the result is a stylistic anomaly, a strange point of reference one has difficulty fitting into a Venn diagram of explanation. But hey, isn’t that the fun of trying out new music? Isn’t the point to surprise yourself?