Not since The Strokes’ Is This It? has a indie-rock debut been so infectious, yet is so, effectively balanced with a world-weary swagger. The White Rabbits’ Fort Nightly hijacks the ear and never lets go as it saunters, bursts and recoils with a fusion of ska, tango tweaked guitar riffs and shouts edging toward desperation. The calypso beats and vintage piano made an odd marriage of the carnivale and the carnival. Comparisons to The Walkmen, considering both groups’ affinity for vintage piano sounds, are valid. But there is something more to the former Columbia, Missouri, six-piece that has since set up base in Brooklyn. Mainly, it’s the Afro-Carribean influences that spur one to dance and sing along to lyrics with the same level of melancholy and isolation seen on The Walkmen’s “The Rat”.
The self-described honky-tonk calypso devotees waste no time winning fans. The opening song “Kid on My Shoulders” churns a sleazy tale that is anything but Father Spencer Tracy with it’s lyrics of deflated sincerity. Instead, try a raucous group chant of “We held our tongues throughout it/ One day we’ll laugh about it.” Light piano gives “The Plot” time to build for the chorus describing the subject being less than impressed. The song lacks the haunting quality of other songs on the album, but its rewarding jerkiness makes it easily the most accessible. The band’s skill at the atmospheric emerges on “Dinner Party”, which recalls a melodic but gritty carnival, circa 1930s. The album’s standout song is “Navy Wives”, opening with the banging of toy piano to a dance number of middle-aged women gone depressingly wild on the military base. Fans of The Specials will recognize the time measure that is wound but never releases completely.
A similar approach is given to “While We Go Dancing”, but this time with a slower buildup. It starts exhausted with musings such as, “And daylight goes away so soon/ I’ve had my fill by the afternoon.” It then blossoms with dance catchiness on par with Arctic Monkey “I Bet You Look Pretty Good on The Dance Floor”. Maturity or perhaps apathy soaks through the mariachi/rock hybrid foot-tapper of “I Used to Complain But I Don’t”.
From there, the rest of the album takes a dive. The momentum and hooks fails to snag, leaving the band in a limbo filled with songs that just miss. The one highlight is “March of the Camels” with its falsetto choir over an intentionally laughable faux-Arabian tale. The closing track “Tourist Trap” fades out of memory once over. It would have been wiser to let it end with “Reprise,” which is a brief barroom sing along of the chorus from “Kid on My Shoulders”. Flaws aside, the White Rabbits have taken their The Television and Stooges inspirations and thrown in ska and Afro-Carribean and South American twists. The so-called NYC rock revival is already a crowed tent. But the carnival tent of rock fused with calypso and creepy vintage pianos isn’t. Even the barker can’t help but dance.