White Denim


Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Downtown

With its loping rhythms, soaring song structures and succulent mash of instruments working together, White Denim’s D sounds like an album built for the summer festival season. The tracks aren’t especially long or grand, but they teeter right at the edge of becoming expansive, cacophonous freak-outs. With little more than a shared nod between band members, any of these songs could to swell to epic proportions that could only be contained by the vastness of a perfect blue sky.

Following their prior Fits in 2009, the band decided a bit of a shake-up was in order. Guitarist Austin Jenkins was recruited from fellow Austin, Texas band Brazos to make the line-up into a quartet. The result doesn’t make White Denim sound that much fuller, but the dynamic has clearly shifted. A former tendency to embrace the messiness of their music has evolved into a more controlled sort of sonic clatter. There’s a little more craft and a little less spillage.

That refinement is partially a result of improved production values as well. The tin can quality of previous records, which did always serve the band well enough, is supplanted by a fine studio burnish on D. The tracks pull together in a gummy stew of earthy rock ‘n’ roll, elusive psychedelia and bluesy licks. Fierce and tight, this is what Meat Puppets would have sounded like if they’d decided to scrap their own songs and start a Doug Sahm cover band.

“Burnished” is a wholly characteristic song. It bubbles up like a roiling tar pit, the twanging guitar line rushing to keep up with Joshua Block’s escalating drum part. James Petralli delivers the lyrics like a fading moan, letting the words settle into the song like an additional instrument line, adding tone instead of a narrative or an explicit meaning. More than anything else, the song is about the way its different components shift and bend against one another. The intricacies of the song are such that it begins to have the feel of jazz musicians reveling in the instinctual give-and-take of a jam session where everyone is fully tune in to one another.

That’s not to imply that anything on the album sounds especially jazzy. The band isn’t trying to be something they’re not. Like most everyone that ever picked up electric guitars, they want to make a splendid racket. “Bess St.” opens with a pounding blues riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Black Keys’ Rubber Factory and proceeds to charge forward quickly like it aspires to provide the background for a car chase scene in a movie that’s far too cool to ever get made. And “At the Farm” includes a swirling eddy of an instrument exchange that should inspire Pavlovian salivation from anyone who made the classic rock station the first stop when cruising the radio dial. White Denim is not trying to be delicate here.

The album can get into ruts too. A few of the songs segue into one another, and after initial shifts in sound, their accommodating cohesion becomes too great. They gravitate back to a certain redundant sound, like a pendulum always coming to rest in the middle after swinging wildly for a while. It still sounds good, but a needle dropped repeatedly at the midpoint between deep grooves might yield a little confusion as to which song is which. That makes the most dramatic digressions all the more welcome: the country groove of “Keys,” the My Morning Jacket style longing of “Street Joy” or even the unique thrumming rapid fire blast at the beginning of “Anvil Everything.”

In the best conceivable way, it feels a little like an album that’s still developing. It’s still something of a work in progress and the songs are still breathing, moving and shifting. Not only live performances would yield new angles to the songs, but maybe another listen to the album would too. On D, White Denim sounds like a band that’s gratifyingly restless. It makes following them on their musical treks an exceedingly enticing prospect.

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