White Denim’s giddy mix of garage rock, psych and rockabilly is at its most intoxicating when played fast and loose. The band’s muscular performances and slick interplay give much of their latest album, ‘Stiff’, a sense of purpose and power. Opener, ‘Had to Know (personal)’ is as clear an example as any, with its sharp, interlocked guitar sweeps and the propulsive energy which radiates from Jeff Olson’s rattling drums. What’s clear immediately is that the band’s original strengths are completely unchanged.
But since the band’s breakthrough on 2008’s ‘Workout Holiday’, many things have changed. This earlier material, while just as focused on exciting rock interplay, came armed with a satisfyingly raw recording and a thick layer of psychedelic haze. With 2013’s ‘Corsicana Lemonade’, the band aimed for a sunnier sound, indebted to melodic pop songwriting as much as their greasy rock roots. The results were tamer than what had come before, but the band’s performances managed to sell the transition. ‘Stiff’ largely continues down the same path, but with disappointingly bland results, in parts.
There’s no shame in the obvious influences propelling White Denim’s sound; part of their appeal lies in the warm familiarity of their blues rock musicianship. Sadly, ‘Stiff’ takes a generic approach to songwriting that weakens this appeal, when the earlier rawness has been removed from the equation. ‘Take it Easy’ makes a potentially interesting dive into mellow romantic songwriting, but without the exhilarating instrumentation backing James Petrelli’s vocal, the weakness of his melodies and lyrics become glaringly obvious. Built on a slew of slow jam cliques – “Take It easy”, “I’m not proud of my mistakes” “You’re all that I need”, etc. – the song reads as a grocery list instead of a meaningful love song. This trend sadly continues onto ‘Big Big Fun’ and its unconvincing bravado. The lethargic track is complete with a 70’s ‘wah wah’ guitar lick that feels fit for a scene of awkward banter in a bad TV cop show. It’s uncomfortably mid-tempo stuff.
Luckily, the album does have its share of highlights, such as the sharp guitar noodling on ‘Holda You’, which takes the group’s ‘Marquee Moon’ influence and moulds it into something utterly undeniable. Songs like these actually make use of the band’s newfound clarity rather than settling for generic writing. The same could be said a track like ‘Mirrored in Reverse’ which embraces their generic nature to satisfy a taste for blues rock bombast. Still, this track makes apparent the faceless presentation plaguing White Denim’s music; with their sanitised production and bright exterior, they could easily be mistaken for the Black Keys.
There are countless bands working with White Denim’s formula, and for a long time, their punchy performances helped them stand out from the pack. Fans of the band will find a lot to like here, but the lack of interesting song topics or sonic textures pushes the band further into the background.
‘Stiff’ is out on the 26th March via Downtown Records.
This White Denim review was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup Contributor. Edited by Adam Skirving.