On April 1 of this year, Austin's psychedelic garage-rock outfit White Denim was slated to play a show at Third Man Records in Nashville. As with most shows at Jack White's in-town record shop, the performance was to be recorded to analog tape for an album that would later be released via Third Man. But due to a visit from the fire marshal that day — over a now resolved issue — the show was canceled last minute.
But White Denim still recorded their live album.
Since the band was already in town, the folks at Third Man decided to still invite White Denim to record their set, and a select handful of friends and press were welcomed to attend — not an elaborate April Fool's hoax, turns out. Those present witnessed a furious set of spastic but somehow gracefully seamless indie rock that was punctuated with lightning-quick interludes — bursts of blues-, jazz- and prog-inflected riffing. The group swapped between pulsing, explosive garage-rock shout-alongs like "Shake Shake Shake" — which was featured on both of 2008's releases, Exposion and Workout Holiday — and spacey, progressive acid-rock numbers like "Anvil Everything" from last month's D.
"We had an amazing time at Third Man," says White Denim frontman James Petralli. "It is extremely rare that we get to enjoy an experience like that in the heartland. They made it easy for us to feel good about what we are doing with the band."
And what is it they're doing with the band? Building on the near-telepathic symbiosis they have as live performers and continuing to grow their prolific output. In listening to D, it's easy to think that songs like "It's Him" and "At the Farm" — with their intricate arrangements and graceful transitions — would be impossible to replicate in a live setting. But as often as the term "virtuosic" is bandied about, White Denim's playing is just that. Each member plays with outlandish precision.
And though White Denim's parts sound, well, difficult to play, these parts aren't difficult to listen to. D doesn't feature the sort of obnoxious exhibitionism of White Denim's prog antecedents. The songs don't yawn to insufferable lengths, as countless jam-band numbers so often do. Instead, the tracks — most of which clock in between three and four minutes in length — are dense, fiery pop numbers, powered by the booming, impossibly meticulous drumming of Joshua Block and the lithe bass playing of the baby-faced Steve "Turbo" Terebecki. Topped with the far-out, jazz-inflected, fast-fingered riffing and authentically soulful crooning of Petralli, D is White Denim's strongest and most concerted effort to date. Its consistency and unity bring to mind classic progressive fusion records like King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, but with the striking blues-punk brevity of The Stooges' Funhouse.
White Denim is not, however, about to overstate their influences, and they certainly don't intend to dumb anything down.
"We try to avoid making direct references to existing music [when writing]," explains Petralli, "because we fear that doing too much of that will yield stale results. We want the music to become what it will through the process of making it together. Some of our tunes possess extremely obvious qualities — most of the time we are trying more to subvert the touchstones than directly spelling them out for people."
And like so many of the predecessors they indirectly reference, Petralli & Co. pursue the endangered art of carefully constructing albums — not chasing hits. "We are much more interested in making a complete representation of the band and a continuous listening experience than we are with creating singles," says Petralli. Of course, as their creative ambitions have grown, so have their needs. Just under a year ago, White Denim added to their ranks second guitarist Austin Jenkins, who Petralli claims has expanded the range of their live performances in a preferable, organic way (i.e., without necessitating the use of loops, onstage computers, Music Production Centers or "something like that.")
The woodwinds and exotic flourishes of "River to Consider" betray White Denim's desire to extend their reach even further. "Busted!" Petralli admits when asked about his songs' occasional exotic leanings. "To put it plainly, I am a huge world music fan. ... We listen to every kind of music that we possibly can that is played well or honestly. We don't discriminate at all. There is something to be learned from all music."
It's that refreshing creative appetite — and, of course, the whole virtuoso thing — that sets White Denim apart from the leagues of punk, garage-rock and indie-rock outfits who seek the Holy Grail of indie stardom. But while Petralli says he has "absolutely no idea" when White Denim's Third Man-recorded live album will be out, those of us who were present as it was tracked can tell you that "stellar" just about sums it up.
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