Hitting The Trunk Road: White Denim – It’s The Best Thing Going

When he wasn’t instructing everyone on how to be the man, Ric Flair would occasionally punctuate his rambling tirades about his own greatness with the exhortation that “whether you like it or not, learn to love it, cause it’s the best thing going.” If the Nature Boy had been in Williamsburg for White Denim’s two night run at the Brooklyn Bowl, he might have been tempted to revive one of his most memorable catchphrases. Already masters of leaving their mark with concise festival length sets like the one recently delivered at Bonnaroo, White Denim possess that rare abundance of both quality of musicianship and quantity of songs to establish themselves as legitimate headliners.

At Shapiro’s Alley, White Denim unleashed a potent and vibrant combination of punk, grunge, hardcore, classic rock and alternative rock, distilling everything that is great about those genres, into its purest essence and offering it up in highly concentrated doses. Firing off enervating guitar riffs as if they’ve bought them wholesale, White Denim isn’t a band to dally on one too long, moving at a lightning quick pace; by the time one has grabbed you, they’ve likely moved on to another. On top of this intoxicating brew, lead singer and lead guitarist James Petralli spits out a rapid succession of hipster jive that would make Jack White sit up and take notice. He echoes Gordon Gano’s sardonic rhyming catechisms on Mess Your Hair Up and on El Hard Attack DCWYW, he barks out the Spanish lyrics with the gusto of a Spaghetti western villain.

When playing as a trio, before guitarist Austin Jenkins entered the fold, White Denim would rifle through their burgeoning catalog over the course of any performance. Far from simply seguing from one song to next, they seemed to cherry pick bits and pieces of various songs and meld them together into a nearly seamless set. As much jazz mastery and jamband gimmickry, sometimes they would play an entire song, maybe just the chorus, possibly slip a guitar riff or a bass line from one song into another and be off to something different. Raw, brutal and unpretentious, in no uncertain terms, White Denim’s early shows were everything rock and roll should be.

Full Show Audio By Justin Marinoff

Nowadays, as a quartet, White Denim hasn’t left behind their love for melding songs together, they just no longer throw everything in a blender and hit puree. Full versions of songs now merge seamlessly, if not still breathlessly, into each other with only the occasional mid-song segue, the most notable being the insertion of Call It What You Want into their instrumental workout of At The Farm. The loud rhythmic bursts, emotive howls and adrenalized guitar riffs of years past are still present but implemented with the precision of microsurgeons.

In 2006, Petralli, drummer Josh Block and bassist Steve Terebecki started playing shows around Austin, Texas as White Denim and, in what seems to be typical for them, hit a breakneck pace and just kept going. With their first couple records, White Denim exhibited the finesse and fine understanding of such art-rock bands as Television and The Talking Heads, grasping while simultaneously transcending the conception of what makes up a song. Over their course of Let’s Talk About It, their brilliant thirteen and half minute debut EP, the untraditional power trio made rock and roll feel vital and alive. They pushed further on Exposion, their first true full length album, keeping the music concentrated but allowing the intensity to spread and organically flow forth. Never straying too far from their garage rock roots, Terebecki and Block masterfully build the tension on Heart From Us All, unleash an earth-shaking three minutes of straightforward rock on Shake Shake Shake and let Sitting, the album’s closer, stew in its psychedelic cum art rock juices.

While White Denim slowly gathered a fervent cult of followers in America, they took off overseas. Even with the digital revolution widening markets, for quite some time, their next release, Fits, remained a hard-to-get import. Keeping true to their overriding mantra of high octane yet musically precise rock and roll, White Denim started to incorporate elements of acid rock and garage-style psychedelic soul into their mix. Still flying through songs at a breakneck pace that would impress Usain Bolt, they simply took songs in whatever direction they needed to go.

The true breakthrough came with the arrival of Jenkins as it freed Petralli from having to concurrently handle lead guitar and lead vocals. Jenkins not only eased the burden on Petralli, he flushed out the band’s sound and opened up Petralli’s guitar work. In the midst of the recording sessions that would become D, the now-quartet detoured into recording Last Days Of Summer, a collection of older songs given new life with a new karmic energy. Offered as an end-of-summer bonus in 2010, the self-released freebie won’t go down as the band’s strongest effort but it does serve as a nice memorial to a band in transition.

On D, White Denim took their most significant step forward, moving from crisp, angular rock to full-on aural assaults that made the maximum use of everything in their arsenal. D could easily have served as the soundtrack playing within Casey Jones’ head while he sped out of control on his mythic railroad tracks. Moving along at renegade pace, their fourth studio album is the closest they’ve come to harnessing the energy of their live shows and their finest, most satisfying yet. It’s the release that has become their tipping point, garnering them many appearances on best-of-2011 lists (including the top spot on Hidden Track’s list) and a nice gig opening a series of shows for Wilco.

Wynton Marsalis once explained Miles Davis’ allure with the pseudo-mathematical explanation “sustained intensity equals ecstasy” and White Denim has always been a band that proves the trumpeter’s point. If Phish or any iteration of the Grateful Dead unleashed At The Farm on an unsuspecting audience, they would lose their collective minds and not stop talking about it for weeks.

Like them, love them, hate them, feign recognition of them, live in ignorance of them; it doesn’t change the fact that White Denim is the freshest, most invigorating rock and roll band in America. Whoo!

EIGHTH NOTES

For the moment, Punk Prayer is undoubtedly the most important song on the planet. Russia’s thinly veiled free speech persecution of Pussy Riot under the guise of a charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred has prompted vociferous protests around the world, revived the riot grrrl movement, renewed Russia’s credentials as an Evil Empire and prompted one of Vladimir Putin’s ministers to call Madonna a slut. No matter what anyone thought of George W. Bush, no one thought the Dixie Chicks should have been imprisoned. (Well, no one intelligent). In 1976, when the Czechoslovakian government arrested and prosecuted The Plastic People Of The Universe for “organized disturbance of the peace,” it set in motion a course of events that essentially resulted in a revolution. Free Pussy Riot!!

To put this into perspective, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for making that video, which pleads with the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and cries for the banishment of Putin. Michael Jackson suffered no consequences whatsoever for the video for Black & White.

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3 thoughts on “Hitting The Trunk Road: White Denim – It’s The Best Thing Going

  1. Jacob Reply

    Rock and roll is still alive and damn it’s good!

  2. JG Reply

    Love the D, great album.

  3. Ted Rockwell Reply

    Certified White Denim fan-boy right here. Saw them for the first time in 2008 and have seen them four times since and each time they get better and better. Each musician in this band is extremely talented and they have a fantastic sense of humor that keeps them from taking themselves too seriously. I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations with the band on several occasions in the past and they are ultimately humble and appreciative that they have fans of their work.

    Hoping they go back on tour soon and roll through Denver (or Boulder!) so I can see them again!

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