White Denim - Stiff
Like the majority of the song titles on their sixth full-length album, Stiff, (seventh if you include Exposion), White Denim have always operated as a parenthetical aside to the “heavy hitters” of the modern blues rock subgenre; indeed, five out of nine tracks on Stiff contain parentheses in the title. However, the album shows a clear attempt to change this status. While The Black Keys moved on to disco and Tame Impala became more idiosyncratic with psychedelic experimentation, White Denim delved deeper into the R&B and soul catalogue, digging up influences from Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, and James Brown.
Stiff simultaneously sounds like an old friend and a stranger. There are tropes and movements on the album cribbed from the entire history of R&B and rock, but they’re repackaged in a manner that is mostly fresh. The only encapsulating phrase that comes to mind is “space-aged blues.” Stiff sounds almost like a treatise on musical time travel—the only way for White Denim to move forward is to go back.
The album starts with a reverb-addled, disembodied voice proclaiming “Oh we’re going to have music,“ before launching into the massive, overdriven blues riff of “Had 2 know (personal),” which sounds like Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” on speed. It has a thrilling energy that propels the album forward. This same energy dominates the first three tracks in particular. “Ha ha ha ha (Yeah)” has a James Brown shuffle with a Kool & the Gang groove. While the lyrics on this track are some of the most vapid I’ve heard in recent memory (“I need you like bacon needs eggs”), James Petralli reminds us to “Be yourself, and try to have a good time.”
Questions of cultural appropriation notwithstanding, they are claiming the past for their own and asking you to have some fun with them. It might feel paradoxical for a band as consumed by their influences to implore individuality from listeners, but it makes sense when you consider how much they’ve embodied their forebearers to create something altogether new.
“Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)” represents the first real shift in tempo and feeling on the album (and is a personal favorite). The track trades heavily in Motown influences—Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, and Smokey Robinson specifically. James Petralli does his most interesting vocal work here, ditching his baritone for a smoother falsetto. “(I’m the One) Big Big Fun” continues that vibe with some slinky, low-key funk, utilizing bongos, cowbell, and plenty of wah and reverb on the guitars.
The textures found between the guitars and keyboards are psychedelic and calming in the strangest of ways. Imagine LSD-laced elevator music.
“Real Deal Momma” makes me want to do the Pee Wee Herman “Tequila” dance and picks up the pace. It’s a full on rock ‘n’ roll revival recalling early 2000s bands like The Vines and Jet (as opposed to minimalist stalwarts The White Stripes and The Strokes). “Mirror in Reverse” is arena-ready rock with huge guitars and wall-of-sound rhythm, continuing the “more is more” approach of the previous track.
Jazz rhythms on closer “Thank You” give way to tight, in the pocket drumming, and surprising synthesizer flourishes. The expansiveness of the chorus sends the listener into the stratosphere. The textures found between the guitars and keyboards are psychedelic and calming in the strangest of ways. Imagine LSD-laced elevator music. There are stretches where bassist Steve Terebecki really shines with some wonderfully funky runs, but I couldn’t help but want more. I would have liked this song to be an extended jam considering its movement, perhaps a minute or two longer. This is a strange song to end on as it almost feels unfinished.
The musicianship exhibited on Stiff is some of the tightest and most technically apt I’ve heard from this subgenre. The chops are there in spades, and the production is gorgeous (seriously, give it a listen on quality headphones), but if White Denim have one fault it’s that they focus less on crafting fully realized songs than creating a sound or feeling. Overall this is an album meant to be taken as an album. Where Corsicana Lemonade seemed like step forward in terms of songwriting, Stiff is a slight step back. If White Denim can manage to marry stellar songwriting with the sonics found on this album, fans will be in for something spectacular in the future.
77,000 out of 100,000 Rawckus Kung Fu Throwing Stars.