Album Review: White Denim – ‘Stiff’

StiffIn a city comprised of some of rock n roll’s finest and most dynamic musicians, Austin’s White Denim have built a marvelously sturdy brand of southern progressive rock that exhibits all the spontaneous, diverse and certainly weird characteristics that define the city.

The tunefully frantic musicians behind frontman James Petralli give White Denim’s melodic songs an anomalous spice compared to many of their contemporaries.

With growing success nationally and internationally upon each release, ‘Stiff’ is the band’s seventh album in a decade, but it didn’t come without its own unique challenges.

The four-piece was cut in half in 2014 when founding member Joshua Block (drums) and guitar virtuoso Austin Jenkins (guitar) left to purse other projects; including recording, producing and writing with Austin retro-soul upstart Leon Bridges. Petralli and Steven Terebeck (bass) enlisted the help of guitarist Jonathan Horn and drummer Jeff Olson, whom Petralli had worked with on his side-project Bop English to complete the new lineup.

Over the years, after initially building a reputation on frantic home-recorded performances and techniques, White Denim have subtly progressed towards a more pristine and polished sound. After working with Mike McCarthy and Jeff Tweedy on ‘D’ and ‘Corsicana Lemonade’, Petralli and co. sought out modern legend Ethan Johns to produce this record. Being the first producer to have worked with the band for the entirety of the recording sessions, Johns adds a smooth feel and warm sound to the songs, but doesn’t neuter the rambunctiousness of the performances.

He tastefully burnishes off unnecessary noise and adds clarity to the tight James Brown inflected, funky ‘Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)’, all while maintaining the group’s lively raw energy. Petralli’s songs have always been melodically approachable, if not a bit cluttered – Johns’ veteran production methods and steady-hand offer a new perspective on White Denim’s material by clearly bestrewing the idiosyncratic influences and performances on the record.

The humorously and aptly titled ‘There’s a Brain In My Head’ is a quirky slice of sixties jangle pop that has hints of The Byrds, The Doors, even The Monkees. Midway through the record, Johns dusts a light breeze into the soulfully romantic ‘Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)’, the feathery syncopated drum rhythms, groovy bass tones and chamber pop guitars cultivate a delectable smooth environment that allows Petralli and Terebeck vocals to harmoniously shine. The itis inducing ‘(I’m The One) Big Big Fun’ follows with a thick dank bayou funk that sounds as humid as a Texas summer.

In many ways ‘Stiff’ is a back to the roots record because of the collaborative inclusion of Johns, Horn and Olson, but these songs are not basic. Post-breakup tinged opener ‘Had 2 Know (Personal)’ starts off with a rolling ruckus of rip-roaring guitars and drums before settling into a tumbling break-beat of southern rock. The fuzzy driving train pulse of ‘Holda You (I’m Psycho)’ sounds like a precisely jumbled dice roll, its festival-friendly groove and drum build-up adding tension as Petralli and Horn’s guitars convulse towards a blistering crash. The shuffling ‘Real Deal Momma’ and knarly southern riffage of ‘Mirrored In Reverse’, meanwhile, both offer spontaneous and vigorous rock n’ roll whilst displaying the four-piece’s delectable knack of musicianship.

Rock n’ roll bands such as White Denim are a rarity to find. They’re true rock n’ roll disciples, believers of its ethos. But beyond this they are marvelous musicians, able and willing to tap into a diverse palette of sounds and structures.

The acid-jazz soul-infused closer ‘Thank You’ flips through each part effortlessly as it organically bookends White Denim’s most pristine record to date.

(Trey Tyler)

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