This review comes to us courtesy of a guest TMIM contributor. Please email any comments to Fred.
With a new decade comes a new record from Austin psych worshipers White Denim, as well as a new label (Downtown Records), a new studio, and a new second guitarist in Austin Jenkins. Everything points to a shakeup of the freewheeling kitchen-sink sound they explored on their slew of releases over the past four years. According to frontman James Petralli, “we were kind of hearing everything much more clearly and it got different performances out of us.” White Denim are still a young band, with more eyes on them than ever before, so the real question with D is how it holds up under the increased pressure of hype and heightened expectation.
Above all, D is a streamlining of a lot of the quirks that made White Denim stand out from the pack of classic rock-contorting peers like Besnard Lakes and Brightback Morning Light. Gone, for the most part, are the wild left turns and excursions into the wilderness that characterized their early releases – the band sounds more assured, less interested in veering a song off-balance than riding it out to see where it takes them. Rather than throwing together a collage of disparate ideas, the band seems content to anchor themselves and build, whether they’re riding a shuffling, pitching rhythm on the Dirty Projectors-inspired “Anvil Everything” or condensing a sprawling, Allman-esque jam into three minutes on “Drug.”
The best thing that can be said about D is that the band has found a niche and plays to it well. Dressing up Europe ’72-era Grateful Dead with avant-garde affectations is nothing new, and the aforementioned Dirty Projectors still lead the pack in that regard, but the strength of White Denim lies in their ability to make their constantly shifting, amorphous songs both creative and highly palatable. With its torrent of hooks appearing and disappearing at a rapid pace, D has potential to be a crossover record, and it’s clearly designed to be: delivered and packaged like the band’s Grand Statement.
What brings the record down, though, especially in light of their earlier work, is how much personality they seem to have sacrificed in an attempt to nail down an aesthetic. These are strong songs, one and all, but the purposeful, playful meandering of tracks like 2009′s “Everybody Somebody” is gone, and without it the group loses some of their edge. At their worst, the tracks sound like they were sucked dry of their creative essence and made to fit a certain mold, as if the group put the overarching purpose of the album before the spirit of the songs.
So how does D stand up to the pressure of being a major work from a group on the verge of success? That depends on what side of the band you most appreciate. Fans of high-energy, slightly warped Americana will find a lot to love here, but if you’re expecting more of the same from a band known for schizophrenic songs and a penchant for experimentation, D seems to signify that they’ve moved on to bigger things.
You can purchase White Denim’s albums with standard shipping on Amazon.com. You can also purchase “D” with standard shipping at Overstock.com.