After an incredible breakthrough year in 2008, White Denim celebrate the first year anniversary of Workout Holiday (Albums of the Year from Observer Music Monthly, Uncut, The Sun and Clash) by releasing the eagerly anticipated follow up Fits. 2009 promises to be as incendiary. The band returns for live dates in May, shows that are bound to be rammed after their now legendary UK shows that killed it at Bloomsbury Bowling, Borderline, Cargo and culminated in the you-really-should-have-been-there Dingwalls show in November 2008 - one of The Independent's Gigs of the Year - "the kind of group that becomes one's favorite band. If they carry on at this rate, they should be one of next year's big crossover successes".
When a band's first album is unpredictable enough to invoke comparisons with artists as wildly diverse as hardcore innovators the Minutemen and professorial idiosyncrasy of Randy Newman, then you can reasonably assume its been made by people who care about music. Lots of it. Jazz, punk, funk, country, acid rock, even piano ballads - all these labels have been used, accurately, to describe White Denim. Their second record is more problematic though. It has to sound like them.
Fits; the title is both a knowingly bad pun and a reference to the odd tantrum endured in its creation- manages just that. Anyone familiar with the ferocious drive of the Texan trio's renowned live shows, where songs merge into each other and the playing guides the direction of the performance, will recognize their approach. Recorded and produced by the band in their infamous studio/trailer, Fits is more coherent than debut Workout Holiday, yet sacrifices none of its imagination. Though there's barely a pause between tracks the set ebbs and flows, ranging from the soft-hearted to the ferocious.
The band describes it, with only light sarcasm, as The Friendship Record. 'We were congratulating each other for having good ideas," says singer/guitarist James Petralli of the sessions, "We went through a lot of positive and negative things and came out of it a lot closer."
Declared influences range from the obvious - the early works of Funkadelic, to the deep - drummer Josh Block has been listening to a lot of seventies Brazilian pop, and it shows.
There are the curveballs you might expect from White Denim, but they are unifying and never forced. The mysteriously titled 'Sex Prayer' is an unexpected groove-led fusion riddim instrumental composed and largely performed by bassist Steve Terebecki. The frantic 'Hard Attack' is in garbled Spanish. More typical is the pummelling yet swirling upcoming single 'I Start To Run', as blunt as any sixties garage band that ever attempted rhythm and blues, yet dressed in a post-post punk arrangement that DFA would be proud of. Danceable rock music does not always have to fit the Brooklyn template. The playful touches act as a wonderful counterpoint to the soulful holler and keys/drums/harmonies second half of this killer tune.
The woozy, fuzzed up 'All Consolation' extends the mind-expanding Texan tradition of Roky Erickson, Butthole Surfers and Secret Machines while 'Everybody Somebody' is their own take on classic rock, powered by nagging percussion and bubbling keys. Yet White Denim can never be merely nostalgic. 'Radio Milk' and 'Say What You Want' indubitably rock, yet the rhythms driving them are quietly unsettling and anything but predictable. According to Petralli the songs "deal directly with the sense of paranoia that came with the congratulations we got. Once it's out there it's no longer yours. We're just addressing the fears that come with that."
The fabulously driving 'Mirrored And Reversed' has a 'Suspicious Minds' false fade that confounds expectations. Lyrically it deals with the contradiction of their current situation. "Being in a rock band is absurd for an adult. Until last year we lived our lives growing up, worrying about insurance and starting families. Now we do this. So it's about being afraid of preserving your dreams," says Petralli. Or, as he sings, "Hoping the hopes of a child". More prosaically, he describes the music as 'a good steady shuffle.' This could possibly be one of the most humble understatements of the year.
These are songs born of experience and doubt. The skipping country-rock of 'Paint Yourself', closer to the Meat Puppets than Laurel Canyon, the heartfelt 'Regina Holding Hands', White Denim's take on Shuggie-style soul music (and signals, if it were needed, the emergence of a great singer), and the gentle, moody closer 'Syncn' details a relationship that can't succeed. As bold a closer as 'Radio Milk' is an opener, with James' voice nudged and encased by a fantastically restrained drum workout and predatory instrumentation until the vocal breakdown rounds out a triumphant return.
For all the contemplation, Fits is effortlessly fun. There are more elements of jazz and soul than previously. Vocals sit in the mix rather than on top, effectively another instrument. The playing is, again, deft without being showy, and there are melodic hooks to spare. So what's the secret? "We set the tempos high and set off," says Petralli. It's that simple. And it works. In spades.
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