Release Date: Mar 25, 2016
Record label: Downtown
When White Denim first ruffled feathers in 2007, they were dismissed in some circles as slightly late arrivals to the garage rock revival party, an unfair assumption based on debut single Let’s Talk About It. However, first impressions would prove to be deceptive; sure, it started with a cool enough riff that you could hang your hat on, but it soon unfurled and within three minutes had become something else entirely, shamelessly rifling through hitherto unexpected influences with gusto. That single serves as a succinct description of the band’s career across the next six albums.
It's hard to sound nervous and soulful at the same time, but White Denim manage that remarkable accomplishment on their sixth album, 2016's Stiff. The edgy energy that's long been the band's trademark is present in abundance here, which is welcome news since Stiff debuts a new White Denim lineup. On Stiff, singer and guitarist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki are joined by new guitarist Jonathan Horne and drummer Jeffrey Olson.
Austin foursome White Denim are capable of the kind of fevered fretwork frottage that can cause adult human faces to screw up with joy. They are a Levi’s jacket band: flattering, hard-wearing and great for any occasion. Live, they may make your knees shake like Robert Plant, but on record the musicianship often eclipses the songs, resulting in a lack of truly memorable bangers.
It’s been five years since I first saw White Denim on a practically deserted main stage at Pukkelpop 2011. It was a baking hot day, one that Texas would be proud of, and my first taste of that twitchy festival atmosphere. Not long afterwards a monumental storm tore down two stages and cancelled the whole event. A year later I saw them rip through a sweltering set at The Cockpit in Leeds, one of the best gig experiences of my life at the time.
There’s an overlying theme of fun and feistiness that permeates White Denim’s new record, Stiff. The Austin, Texas quartet sound determined to shake off whatever hangover is still lingering from their recent lineup change, and come out revamped and refocused on their rollicking new batch of tunes. The group still manages to fluidly blend southern-fried garage rock, soul, psychedelia, and funk on their sixth studio effort, showing no ill effects from the recent shakeup to their tight-knit core.
A seventh curveball from the post-blues Austin crazies. The world of blues rock is as known for its unpredictability as Downton Abbey is for its relentless dragon attacks, so Austin’s White Denim are a glorious anomaly. They throw classic soul, psych, experimental loops and punk elements into songs known to get through time signatures like the Kardashians get through nipple tape, and their albums are like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box or a live TV appearance by Shaun Ryder.
Though White Denim writes rock songs with shifting time signatures, circuitous guitar riffs, and tricky interludes, the band is at their best when these various elements are presented within a more straightforward pop-rock template. This was the secret behind 2011's D, which earned White Denim their first big wave of acclaim, and it also defines the best moments of their seventh LP, Stiff. But the album is just as often a victim of overcooked complexity, and the way it shifts headily between genres and styles—often in the course of the same song—obscures White Denim's goofy playfulness.
Despite the departure of half the Texan band to work with Leon Bridges, White Denim’s sixth album largely picks up where they left off. Corsicana Lemonade, released in 2013, was heavily indebted to 70s southern rock, and Had 2 Know (Personal) and the breakneck Holda You (I’m Psycho) once again look to the Allman Brothers for inspiration, although the overall effect comes closer to a less-dancefloor-filling Black Keys. Variety comes in the form of a gently funky soul interlude midway through that highlights the versatility of James Petralli’s voice.
From the moment the squalling guitar riff of ‘Had 2 Know (Personal)’ kicks in at a breakneck speed, White Denim are back with a vengeance. The seventh record to come from the Texan quartet, and their first in two and a half years, ‘Stiff’ is a tour de force of dexterity and capability. Lead track ‘Holda You (I’m Psycho)’ set a template for an album that breathes rock and roll, but in typical White Denim fashion, the band don’t stick to one structure for too long.
It may never have been a vaulting ambition, but after six bites of the cherry, White Denim have made an album Alan Partridge would truly love. The quartet, from Austin, Texas, have been on the peripheries of a breakthrough for almost a decade, with each album strengthening their cult appeal. Perhaps ‘Stiff’ is the one to propel them into the mainstream (or perhaps not).Recorded with Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, The Vaccines), it infuses an overt Doobie Brothers influence with the intoxicating whiff of Castrol GTX, a heady miasma for any proudly anachronistic geezers out there.
In 2016, White Denim’s days of raw garage rock are so far behind them that most fans wouldn’t be blamed for struggling to associate early singles like “Let’s Talk About It” with the soulful rock approach the band has become known for over the past five years. From the expansive psych of 2011’s D or the blues-filled classic rock approach of 2013’s Corsicana Lemonade, the four-piece have steadily carved out a niche for themselves with a faithful and proficient spin on pleasing, revivalist rock. It’s a streak they continue on Stiff, a record that feels like their most throwback to date.
On Stiff, White Demin really put their backs in to it – infinite solos, myriad breakdowns, hooks on hooks on power chords and huge, brash intros... but for all that sweat, you're left cold and a bit clammy. The band are approaching their ten-year anniversary, and recently rearranged their line-up. So perhaps it's a slight touch of overcompensation that sees White Denim put the pedal to the floor so vigorously, but their thrill-a-second tactics leave nothing to the imagination.
For a brief instant, the future of White Denim seemed uncertain. Despite the departure of second guitarist Austin Jenkins and drummer Joshua Block to soul wunderkind Leon Bridges, however, Stiff picks up where the Austin quartet left off. Frontman James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki have regrouped in another tight unit with Jonathan Horne, stick man Jeffrey Olson, and multi-instrumentalist Mike St.