In today’s rock landscape of Led Zeppelin rip-offs and Tame Impala wannabes, White Denim stands out. Sure, the band takes a lot of influence from British Invasion heavyweights, but Stiff isn’t just Zeppelin IV with more effects (I’m looking at you, Fuzz). This isn’t new, though. White Denim’s brand of psychedelic blues rock has always maintained enough aural diversity to draw attention from a variety of listeners. What is new is the departure of Josh Block and Austin Jenkins, the band’s drummer and one of their guitarists, respectively. In their place are Jeff Olson and Jonathan Horne of frontman James Petralli’s solo act, Bop English. This lineup shift seems to have made the band re-think a few things, because Stiff’s songwriting is a noticeable departure from the raucous guitar-worship of Corsicana Lemonade. This album sees White Denim embracing the old school soul of James Brown and Sly Stone, and running with it.
This is especially obvious in places like “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)”. The tambourine and double time drumming harken back to greats like Clyde Stubblefield, alongside the syncopated guitar line. Petralli sings over the instrumental in his signature growling swagger. Then, in classic White Denim fashion, the chorus moves in an unexpected direction; the drumming becomes crowded and the guitar strums fat chords, leaving the listener in some kind of grey area between the soul and classic rock the band displays a proclivity for. This foray pays off fully; however, the same cannot be said every song of this ilk on Stiff. “Take it Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)” directly recalls Curtis Mayfield, and while the band is loose and dynamic, the vocals come off a bit contrived. The borderline-ridiculous lyrics leave me wondering whether the song is meant to be taken seriously at all. “You don’t have to be a movie star/ in fact I want you just the way you are/ you don’t ever have to change for me,” Petralli feigns in an affected falsetto, proving that some things are just better left to D’Angelo.
Despite what genre White Denim choose to draw inspiration from, they do have a specific set of musical skills they always impress with. The songwriting, while less hook-focused than on Corsicana Lemonade, demonstrates their trademark off-kilter song structures perfectly. In one moment, the listener is treated to booming arena rock, the next, they’re hurtling through an introspective, spacious sonic field. This is complemented by the band’s dynamic mastery. They have an ability to flow so naturally from one section to the next that time signature changes and odd-numbered bars slip past me before I can bat an eye. In this sense, White Denim is as capable as ever.
Unfortunately, eclectic song design is not always enough. I’m hard-pressed to find a tune on Stiff that sticks in my head the same way “At Night in Dreams” or “Come Back” did/do. The melodies simply aren’t as well-written, and the choruses get far less attention. Thankfully, I found this was counterbalanced against the atmosphere garnered by both the production and performances on the album. Petralli’s vocals (with the notable exception of “Take it Easy”) are raspy and energetic, dancing just slightly enough around the notes to invite a sinister edge. The production matches this; Stiff was either recorded in a state of the art studio with $50 guitars, or a dingy basement with priceless vintage Rickenbackers; you decide. Either way, the record is simultaneously grimy and pristine, showcasing lo-fi sensibilities and adept musicality.
This (mostly) unspoken dichotomy in White Denim’s sound, somewhere between fuzzy neo-psychedelia and jazz-fueled jam rock, is perhaps why I’m so intrigued by them. Who is this band that plays Austin Psych Fest and Lock’n on the same tour? They have the grit, the attitude, the unquantifiable coolness, but they’ve also got the chops. Of course, the chops can prove disastrous at times; thankfully, they keep it tasteful, for the most part. Even if I want more attention to this or that on Stiff, less distortion here, more experimentation there, my complaints are mostly minor. White Denim seems to have to taken several genres with little innovation and inspiration and morphed them into their own unique beast, which they’re taking as far they can. I’m looking forward to seeing what new influences hop on to their next full-length LP.
Written by Preston Fulks