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Published on September 14th, 2018 | by voxx


White Denim – Performance

The Austin cult heroes’ high energy collision of genres and ideas is like spinning the dial on a car radio…

The first thing you hear on Performance – the seventh or eighth studio album by the indie-rock whirlwind White Denim, depending on how you tabulate their chaotic discography – is the unmistakable spasm of car-radio roulette: an imaginary hand spinning that dashboard knob, tearing through static and frequencies for the right fuel to drive.

It is classic rock’n’roll impatience and a quick, fitting entrance for a band and record that can’t stand still. Everything that happens here – chunky funk and slithering ‘70′s R&B; jangling-guitar speed pop; ‘60s-garage fuzz; heavy white-blues action; British-prog whimsy (and that’s for starters) – comes in nine songs totalling under 33 minutes. Packed with enough ideas for an album thrice as long, this new peak in White Denim’s craft, verve and attention deficit comes at you like a history of late-20th century popular music, fired in text messages.

But White Denim – founded as a trio in 2006; now bassist Steve Terebecki and singer-guitarist James Petralli with a broad corps of associates – come from the live music boot camp of Austin, Texas, where the 13th Floor Elevators, Doug Sahm, Stevie Ray Vaughan and hardcore iconoclasts the Big Boys set the standards for standing tall, tight and wild on a club stage. In this album’s title song, Petralli throws the word “performance” like a slur, summing up a relationship-turned-sham (“Heart like a crack in the concrete/If only we needed the same way/I suppose this is all a performance”). The doubting, however, comes in a fiercely assured exultation of stabbing guitar and steely chorale – early R.E.M. vocally framed by a glam-slam Beach Boys. Performance is White Denim’s most produced album, thickly textured with brass, keyboards and studio atmospheres. Play it loud, though, and you easily imagine the euphoria at the bar after every track.

Actually, the original line-up of Terebecki, Petralli and drummer Josh Block, at SXSW in 2008, barely left room for anyone to clap, ripping through their 35 minutes like a power trio dream of Husker Dü, the mid-‘60s Who and Wire’s Pink Flag. The band’s first studio album, 2008’s Exposion, was first issued as a merch-table CD-R, then appended as bonus material to 2009’s aptly titled Fits.

A second guitarist, Austin Jenkins, joined in 2010. Three years later, he and Block quit to work with a local discovery, the neo-soul singer Leon Bridges. Through all of that surge and change, White Denim were consistent in their hook-enriched whiplash and power trio minimalism. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced 2013’s Corsicana Lemonade, let a little air into the zoom. On 2016’s Stiff, their first record since the split, Terebecki and Petralli – with producer Ethan Johns – added more keyboard light and R&B party flourishes.

Performance, in comparison, practically arrives in Technicolor, “imagined and realised” by Petralli and Terebecki (as the credits put it) with a new rhythmic grip in drummer (and frequent co-writer) Conrad Choucroun. Rolling out of that radio-play intro, ‘Magazin’ is creeping, muscular funk with heavy power chord turnarounds and a horn section that sounds like it’s stumbling down a New Orleans alley at four in the morning. In the chorus of ‘Double Death’, Petralli’s falsetto-like vocal rides a choppy prog-fusion sequence like Curtis Mayfield leading Caravan in 1976. At one point in ‘Sky Beaming’, the ‘70′s-prog spice is so strong that Petralli, in a fleeting Asian-flair guitar lick, summons the improbable ghost of Bill Nelson’s Be-Bop Deluxe.

For White Denim, playing what feels like five songs at once has long been second nature. The songwriting rushes by in mosaic yet inevitably coheres, as the album title assures, in execution – as fundamental in force and lift as a vintage Peel Session. Performance is the first time, though, that White Denim – who, for a long spell, made records in the clubhouse squeeze of Block’s 1940′s caravan – have used the studio as an opportunity, putting meat and depth on the surprises. It is also fun and refreshing to hear the band take one good impulse and make it last: the central churn of ‘Fine Slime’; the way Terebecki’s pneumatic bass anchors the knotty prairie-dusted boogie ‘It Might Get Dark’, which somehow evokes the Eagles and XTC without sounding bipolar.

White Denim, after 12 years in the game, have delivered the album they always seemed too restless to make – true to their stage-lightning aesthetic, yet more than exciting setlist documentary. That leaves one question: What exactly are these songs about? The lyrics, like the music, are a rapid fire of argument, disillusion and resignation, in clipped language and non-sequitur outbursts smeared by the mix and velocity. “Story is blurry, it’s got me worried,” Petralli admits in ‘Move On’. Even the ’66 Bob Dylan might be stymied by ‘It Might Get Dark’: “You sold a few hats after the big money bash/In a microwaved sea on a cruise ship for three, piling all of the cheese until it’s up to your knees.” Hey, it rhymes and it sounds cool.

There is some clarity in the end. “I called but I can’t reach you/Wanna tell you how much I need you/Do you still need me?” Petralli sings in ‘Good News’ which starts like a folk-pop Paul McCartney ballad. But then it’s business as usual as the song whizzes through ‘80s synth-pop and a Nuggets-guitar break in severely-pinched distortion to the acoustic guitar fadeaway. That hand is still on the car-radio dial, spinning wildly, as White Denim race forward.

- By Jake White

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