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Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. Austin’s White Denim might be much-loved for their sheer unpredictability, but they follow their wonderfully skewed 'Fits' from 2009 with their extraordinary new record D, which takes its title from the fourth letter of the alphabet because, yes, it’s their fourth album.
Now a quartet augmented with second guitarist Austin Jenkins, who debuted on last year’s giveaway set (and de facto third collection) The Last Days of Summer, they spent a year writing and recording new material in their home town, “nine to fiving the band stuff”.
“We only did thirty gigs last year,” says singer/guitarist James Petralli ruefully, underlining their stellar live reputation. “That’s pretty boring, man!” D is their first effort to be recorded away from the trailer/studio the band use as a base. “It was actually made in a private studio owned by a vintage gear collector. It was all one room, so we could shout at each other in the middle of takes. As usual,” clarifies Petralli, shrugging and tongue not far from cheek.
The result is as full of twists and turns as anything in their back catalogue, even as it’s suffused throughout with a sun-kissed country-psychedelic feel. “We tracked it in the summer, we’d taken an extended break and we were really excited- hopefully that came through,” explains Petralli, before revealing some unexpected yet somehow logical influences, such as Little Feat, Moby Grape and that great late Texan Lee Hazlewood.
But those only cover part of D’s scope. Take the jittery ‘Anvil Everything’, its loose, seemingly disconnected phrases echoing its nervous melody while Josh Block’s backbone rhythms evoke somewhere further south, hotter even than Texas. ‘A River to Consider’ ratchets the Afro-Latin influence even further, coming off like Beefheart’s Tropical Hot Dog Night’ with Herbie Mann (actually Alex Coke, as Herbie is very much deceased) breezing through by the studio for good measure. ‘Our definitions will outlast what they define,’ Petrelli sings knowlingly, as the flute, sometimes light and airy, sometimes as dense as a Mellotron samples, sprays all over a relaxed, complex tropical beat. “We listen to a lot of Afro-Cuban stuff, and we thought it would be a great bed for an enjoyable flute solo,” deadpans Petralli.
The spiralling, entwined guitar lines of ‘Burnished’ support a lyric that manages to invest its abstract images with paranoia- ‘two countries that kiss cross a river at night’ indeed. In fact the words were supplied by Lucas Anderson, once a member of Petralli and Block’s pre-White Denim outfit Parque Touch and still something of a band consultant. Anderson is now making his way in a rather different field. “He’s trying to work for the state dept. He’s been in Washington DC in a highly political environment. It’s interesting to incorporate that current events thing with our aesthetic. I can’t wait to talk about that,” laughs Petrelli, knowing that the subject will keep coming up.
V Petralli might describe his own impressionist lyrics as owing much to both instruction manuals and avant-garde poetry, but the gently epic ‘Is and Is and Is’ (possibly the perfect White Denim title, mystical yet prosaic) is his attempt at a straightforward narrative. Bruce Springsteen it ain’t, even as it mentions ‘mopping the kitchen floor’, Steve Terebecki’s superb bass playing as expressive as Petralli’s words. “I like to think I’m developing a more direct approach,” he says, pondering the matter, “But maybe the vocals are just more up front on this record.”
The beautiful ballad ‘Street Joy’ is simple and haunting, worthy of comparison with the lovely ‘Regina Holding Hands’ from Fits, while the pumping ‘Bess St’ is the nearest D offers to a straight ahead live rocker, yet it still defies easy resolution. But maybe the best is saved for last. ‘Keys’ is a jaunty, insecure piece of country raga-rock, enlivened by a gorgeous string arrangement reminiscent of Gene Clark’s now adored, once ignored post-Byrds work. Hopeful, heartfelt, and with a majestic vocal turn from James, it’s a perfect ending to an album that refuses to settle into easy patterns but reminds us over and over just how great it is to have White Denim back in our lives.
1. It's Him
3. At The Farm
4. Street Joy
5. Anvil Everything
6. River To Consider
8. Bess St.
9. Is And Is And Is