The debut EP Wait, What? from indie math-rock band Whit is kaleidoscopic: It shape-shifts in sonic geometry, morphing and melding fluidly into different modes, keys, and time signatures. Identity, a recurring theme in the EP, also takes various forms: “Tell me, what’s my name? / Tell me, what’s a shape? / Tell me, what’s my name?” songwriter/guitarist/singer Madison Whitaker imploringly asks in the opener “Alien,” as if she could be poured into a vessel of any size or shape. These lines and many others in Wait, What? sound as if they were snatched from conversations that were leading to a break up.
Because they were, plausibly.
On Wait, What?, Whitaker reflects on how her and her former partner’s shared desire to write great music destroyed their relationship as they collaborated. The EP thus articulates the sad reality for so many artists: The creative processes that good art demands is, too often, toxic in relationships. It is a tragic paradox: That which is generative is also destructive, and Whitaker explores this contradiction in Wait, What? As she told me over email, the EP is about figuring “out a way to be present and stable while healthily loving and creating simultaneously.”
The music is discursive and thus complements Whitaker’s search for answers regarding love and the creation of art. A single song will move through multiple genres. “For Joseph” exemplifies this metamorphosis. In verse one, Whitaker’s voice rises and falls with the rhythm of an R&B singer, but one short chorus and fifty seconds later, the band drops out; acoustic chords, strummed gently, emerge as sparse notes glimmer from an electric guitar and accrue like stardust. As Whitaker’s voice drifts over it all, drummer Andrew Schmidt stirs from his slumber, cracking across the snare in short bursts, before settling into a groove.
A crescendo seems inevitable with all these instruments building on top of each other. But nuh-uh, the band kills the music again, and a few effects — some that swirl, some that gurgle, some that glint — float in near-silence, until a robust chord rings out with the self-importance of that first glorious ray of sunshine that breaks through the storm. A short bridge (which reminds me a bit of the opening in Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town”), and then Whit transitions seamlessly into the verse, before running through the chorus one more time. Finally, they wrap up the song with overlapping drum and guitar solos that sprint to get ahead of each other, a frenzied ending that could’ve come from a thrash band.
All of this in three and a half minutes.
Yet Wait, What? never sounds sloppy or thrown together. On the contrary, it’s a tight, coherent EP whose disparate elements were sewn together by veteran musicians. Whitaker, to flesh out songs that she had written alone, got together with members from established Houston bands: McCullough Ferguson (guitar) of Flower Graves, Bob Lane (bass) of Another Run, Nicole Wigginton (drums on “Alien”) of Fox and Cats, and Andrew Schmidt (drums) of Giant Battle Monster.
The music they’ve created is so spontaneous that the band seems to discover it as they go. It is the perfect landscape for Whitaker’s own self-discovery, which culminates on the eponymous closer.
Opening with a chord progression that stops and starts, and lunges from different regions of the fretboard, “Wait, What?” is the song in which Whitaker realizes that to love well and to create good art, she needs to be alone. Simply put, “Wait, What? is a break up song. But more than that — it’s Whitaker’s effort to rescue herself from a relationship that has subsumed her, that has obscured her sense of self. “What do you see in me?” Whitaker asks in the first line of the song, as if who she is were reflected in her partner’s eyes.
Whitaker’s voice fades, and a quiet harmony follows: One guitarist paces between two palm-muted chords while the other slides between two notes. The oscillating guitars evoke the back-and-forth of a conversation — the one between Whitaker and her partner as they discuss what the latter sees in her. But it doesn’t matter anymore, Whitaker concludes. The harmonizing guitars stop — a pause in the conversation, the silence in which the couple knows the inevitable is coming, and Whitaker — calmly, decisively — says what needs to be said, her croon sweet and caring: “I think we should slow down. / Maybe take some time out.” After the verse, a solo, brief but blithe, cuts loose, a juxtaposition to the harmonizing guitars that were stuck together, bound to each other: Whitaker has disentangled herself from a stifling relationship and reclaimed her sense of self.
And what has emerged from this independent Whitaker is Wait, What?, an impressive debut in what I hope will be a very long career.
The band’s next performance is Saturday, Nov. 18 at Backyard On the Bell Fest in Denton.