Tim Presley, the main man in White Fence, is a notoriously restless and prolific songwriter. Last year, he planned to sift through 40 or so old songs to cull together a compilation of unreleased tracks and, instead, recorded Cyclops Reap, an album of all new material. He released his first album as White Fence in 2010, but he hasn’t put out much since the Drag City offshoot, the God? label, reissued that debut, perhaps for fear it would get forgotten under the glut of great stuff that came after it.
It’s also a timely reissue, considering White Fence is on the rise, thanks to a collaboration with Ty Segall on Hair and the growing quality of Presley’s record, which peaked with Cyclops Reap. Considering Presley’s work ethic, it’s unlikely that he would stop and take a bow, but luckily Thee Oh Sees’ frontman and Castle Face label head John Dwyer has given us one of sorts. Dwyer recorded this concert document, Live in San Francisco, and while it is a chance to bask in the best of Presley’s output thus far, this is no mere victory lap. Instead, it taps into the primal energy that drives Presley. This album honors the band’s live zeal (Castle Face has done the same thing for Ty Segall’s band Fuzz as well) and puts the recorded material in new context.
There’s an obvious difference right up front, seeing as Presley tends to record on the four-track. Moving out of the bedroom and onto the stage seems to be a freeing experience here. The dusty, brittle pop gems he turns out for his record transform into sweating, swampy rockers on stage. Guitarists Jack Adams and Sean Presley flesh out Tim Presley’s folk hooks into country-rock tangles, while bassist Jared Everett and drummer Nick Murray drive the whole thing forward at an impressive speed. The pile may shake, but the frame on these often blazing songs is strong.
So too is Presley, baying these songs out in a tuneful, unhinged voice that is as striking as it intimate. He proves just as adept at leading the band through the funky psych-rock of “Swagger Vets and Double Moon” as he is at taking them through the folk-rock chug of “Pink Elephant”. Presley dials the edge in his voice back on the sweetly surfy “Mr. Adams/Who Feels Right”, and he takes an aching, bittersweet turn on the slower stomp of “The Pool”. In all these moments, we get right to the melodic core of these great songs, but we don’t stop there. Though we get that perfect center, the band also surrounds it with perfectly imperfect burrs and scuffs. It’s not that the band is imprecise but rather that they play together so well that they can build in those blips without making them sound sloppy.
Presley seems to know how good his band is, too, and sometimes just gets out of the way to let them shine. The epic, punky, and mostly instrumental “Baxter Corner” is the best example of this. It’s a nearly nine-minute exercise in rock concision, with a dead-ahead charging rhythm section and the guitars building a razor-sharp set of hooks only to unravel into raging solos and then reform again. It’s a remarkable combination of the band’s tightness and their experimental eye for space. It’s also a rapid-fire counterpoint to (firstly) Presley’s recorded output and (secondly) most everything else in this set. That the band launches into this so early in the set conveys not only their confidence but also their unpredictability.
That unpredictability slips away a bit at the end as the band settles into similar country-tinged rockers, from “Chairs in the Dark” to “Be Right Too”, but the quality never suffers from this more comfortable ground. Live in San Francisco is not just a live document, but an alive document, one that celebrates a band that’s hitting its stride and the hard work of its songwriter, but it also shows the pure joy under the surface of all these songs, the energy they can give off when they’re let loose.