White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade

White Denim - Corsicana Lemonade (Downtown, 2013)Perpetually overlooked underdogs White Denim picked a tough time to release an album that should really push them to a new level. Self-absorbed model Sky Ferreira released her debut album that’s getting loads of media attention due to her topless cover art (which is clearly far from pornographic given how unflattering it is). Check out the endlessly rehashed Fuse News interview with John Norris where she talks about her recent drug arrest . . . while clearly blasted out of her skull on drugs! Or if you’re actually interested in music, don’t. Then there’s the massive hype surrounding the release of Arcade Fire’s double album Reflektor. It’s understandable, as they are a big mainstream Grammy award-winning band. I’ve always given an honest effort to get into them, buying their debut Funeral the day it was released, and being greatly disappointed. Like Pearl Jam, every album has at least one very good song, with the rest varying between not great and not sucky. I saw Arcade Fire valiantly play an energetic set at 2005’s Lollapalooza in 100 degree heat dressed head-to-toe in funereal black, and they were really good. I’m not rooting against them, but the new album sounds like a murky mess. It’s understandable why they would employ LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to help redefine their sound, but the result is not a little boring. If they were trying to pull a Kid A, I’ll call it a valiant failure. Listening to it three times all the way through involved a lot of waiting for the occasional interesting bits, but no real listening pleasure. But the outrageously slavering, fawning reviews by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and even The Quietus are extra annoying when, for example, RS gives White Denim’s latest a short, patronizing review that dismisses their songwriting abilities.

That’s troubling, because Corsicana Lemonade is White Denim’s most accessible, consistently great album yet. Their debut EP Let’s Talk About It (2007) was a noisy, fresh piece of garage chaos that got them a fair amount of attention. They got better and better through the course of Workout Holiday/Exposion (2008), Fits (2009), Last Day Of Summer (2010), D (2011) and Takes Place In Your Work Space EP (2011). People who hear these albums know how great they are. Perhaps part of the problem is their virtuosity. Musicians in particular recognize their impressive playing, which can be a curse to limit a band to cult status. The other may be the lack of promotional muscle behind label Downtown Records. I would have thought by now they would have achieved popularity similar to Tame Impala, who became a sort of indie hit in 2010 with Innerspeaker. Both bands have roots in 60’s garage rock and psych along with Swedish band Dungen, and they happen to be touring together right now.

Early in their career I felt that White Denim scratched an itch left behind when Meat Puppets abandoned their psychedelic desert garage in 1987. Of course they’re so much more than that, experimenting with avant rock, jazz, and singer/guitarist James Petralli even put his vocals out front occasionally, like on the Jeff Buckley-like “Street Joy,” from D. The diversity continues on the new album, with the smooth, percolating afrobeat groove of the title track and the buzzing hard rock guitar solos that make use of new fleet-fingered second guitarist Austin Jenkins on “At Night In Dreams.” Some have compared to Thin Lizzy, but don’t really hear it, as the song darts in a number of directions, though Phil Lynott certainly would have approved. It’s well-publicized that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced two of the tracks, but to be honest there’s little point in singling out which ones because they don’t stand out from the rest. That’s not a bad thing, as all the songs are consistently great. It was more of a symbolic kingmaking gesture from Tweedy, giving his large fanbase the blessing to make this band popular, dammit.

Overall the sound of the album is cleaner, influenced by classic soul and blues that make them sound more like they’re from Texas than any previous work. Case in point is lead single “Pretty Green” which reminds me of a mix of early 70s Steve Miller Band and Sir Douglas Quintet, filtered through The Black Keys. “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles)” tackles country with surprisingly cool results. I don’t know if this was an intentional ELO tribute, but the gorgeous melodicism of “New Blue Feeling” wouldn’t be out of place on A New World Record (1976).  But hearing the songs live reminds me that they still allow for opportunities to shred, which explains why I saw more than a few metalheads at the show. The succinct 3:19 “Come Back” packs enough guitar pyrotechnics for a song twice its length, but avoids sounding cluttered like some of their earlier songs. “Distant Relative Salute” is even better, a perfect balance of transportive ensemble playing and sticky choruses. So good!

Petralli gets a vocal workout on “Cheer Up/Blues Ending,” and even pulls off some pretty smooth soul on the album closer “A Place To Start.” After a dozen listens, every minute has been entertaining, clearly making this the true event album of the month. Hopefully after the [over] hype machines die down on this week’s lesser albums, more people will notice.

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