Since emerging seemingly from nowhere last year, Austin’s White Denim have quickly consolidated a position as one of the only genuinely interesting guitar bands currently active. Their debut album Workout Holiday invigorated a genre yawning with landfill, its sheer energy and invention a much-needed antidote to the tired chord sequences and identikit song structures suffocating us with passivity.
It’s a tricky sound to define, though, their influences taking in classic rock to post-rock, with nods and sidelong glances to blues, jazz and country and an ongoing tenancy agreement with garage-rock, although to be fair the three-piece actually rehearse in a 1940s trailer. White Denim songs tend to be wily, deceptive things, writhing between styles with a dismissive contempt for structure or convention, an anti-formula that saw them end 2008 etched upon most critics’ best-of lists. On the strength of the queue that snaked from the doors of the Great Escape venue they played last month, there’s some expectation surrounding their sophomore (in the UK, at least) release.
On first play, though, Fits does not come off well. Much of the album initially seems too cluttered to really engage, the raucous pace and apparent scarcity of discernible melody or hook more like a mugging than a welcome. Opener Radio Milk How Can You Stand It doesn’t help, its unwieldy title a hint to the tangle of shifting rhythms and ADHD riffs, James Petralli’s voice receding as words become mere cries, layers of melody submerged beneath the distortion.
All Consolation continues the trend, echoed voices raised like Pentecostal tongues under an end-times of gain and screeching guitar-lead that should probably have been reined-in a little sooner: certainly the album’s first half suffers from a claustrophobia of noise and pace, which doesn’t really abate until the mid-point shift of Sex Prayer, a welcome two-minute digression into warm bass-lines and textured sounds.
That said, White Denim know how to get your attention when they want it: Say What You Want opens like Led Zeppelin, a monstrous riff and massive vocal bringing the album straight back into focus before thwarting our expectations once again with an extended sitar outro.
Indeed, the only song that doesn’t set out to defy us in some way is Everybody Somebody, the closest relative to anything from Workout Holiday and a clear cousin to Mess Your Hair Up, that album’s standout track. Like that track, Everybody Somebody finds a happy medium between experiment and rhythm: it’s also one of the only songs here to be vocal-driven rather than guitar-led, and despite appearing near the end of the album is probably the surest route into it.
An easy criticism of Fits is that it doesn’t make enough of Petralli’s voice, on most tracks assigned a mere supporting role of terse interjections and melodic howls. Penultimate offering Regina Holding Hands acts as a consolation of sorts, trading distortion for acoustic guitar and allowing the vocals free reign to fill the space, rising and falling like a soul song that’s got lost on its way to Prince. The subtlety of it makes the track a high-point, and a reminder that the band can do whatever they want.
On that first listen, then, Fits is unlikely to come off well. Early songs are liable to blur and mesh, identifiable more by what isn’t there than by what is, later tracks seeming mere shadows of previous offerings. The second listen changes this, textures and nuance appearing amidst clatter and noise, the frenetic pace invigorating more than overwhelming. Weaker tracks like El Hard Attack DCWYW become richer in context, and the experiments with rhythm and percussion cease seeming like experiment at all. By the third, you’re clamouring for tickets to see them live.
Ultimately to get a sense of Fits you need look no further than the album’s cover: a clutter of disparate objects precariously arranged yet somehow managing to cohere, the very incongruity the key to drawing your eye. Just don’t dismiss the album on that first glance.