[19 October 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Fits is White Denim’s third full-length album, but in many ways, it’s also their first.
Although this Austin-based trio has been crafting their own sweat-stained brand of ‘70s-indebted retro rock since 2005, it’s taken some time for the band to get noticed, initially gaining attention the old-fashioned way: by writing short, spiky rock songs and then touring the living hell out of them. They released two EPs in 2007, and a majority of those songs wound up serving as the backbone for their UK-released debut album, Workout Holiday (occasionally referred to as the 11 Songs LP). The thing that people soon noticed about White Denim is that they’re not some niche performers cashing in on six-string nostalgia. They were the real deal, playing rock songs like the ‘80s and ‘90s hadn’t even happened yet, almost as if vocalist James Petralli, bassist Steve Trebecki, and drummer Joshua Block were all raised on a strict diet of early Led Zeppelin records, the Nuggets box set, and then were banned from listening to the radio for most of their teenage years.
Yet a funny thing happened when working on their self-released sophomore album Exposion: the group wound up re-releasing and re-recording a lot of the same songs over again. Though you certainly can’t blame the band for wanting to capitalize on their well-deserved blog buzz (best spearheaded by the always-fantastic Gorilla Vs. Bear music blog), the singles “Shake Shake Shake” and “All You Really Have to Do” didn’t really call out for encore appearances (nor did the tracks “Sitting” and “IEIEI”). Though Exposion was billed as a follow-up LP—and, to be honest, it did have a nice batch of great new songs—it really wasn’t a “true” sequel to their debut, given that a third of Exposion‘s tracks were carry-overs from their last effort.
So now, right smack dab in the middle of 2009, the band faces their greatest challenge yet: crafting a full-length album of all-new songs without falling back on their time-tested fan favorites as a crutch. Though this task may sound easy enough, let’s not forget the example of one-time iPod ad soundtrackers the Caesars, a garage-rock act whose sole hit “Jerk It Out” wound up appearing on their 2002 album Love for the Streets, its 2003 follow-up 39 Minutes of Bliss, and that album’s 2005 follow-up Paper Tigers, a blatant an example of overt commercialism if there ever was one. In White Denim’s case, the guys have deliberately avoided the crutch of using re-recorded versions of older tracks on their new album, (save for a revision of “DCWYW” from their 2007 Let’s Talk About It EP), and, as a result, the guys have crafted what may arguably be their first “true” album…
...and boy, what a stunner it is.
Fits doesn’t take any prisoners over its 37-minute run time, opening with the ‘60s-flavored psychedelic guitar-rush of “Radio Milk How Can You Stand It” and barely taking a rest during the 11 tracks that follow. Though Fits can at times feel like an overly elaborate game of spot-the-influence (“Sex Prayer” sounds exactly like a track custom-made for Strawberry Alarm Clock, just as “Radio Milk” is a dead-ringer for like-minded garage-rock revivalists the Cato Salsa Experience), White Denim don’t buckle under the weight of their influences. The reason? Simple. This is a band that isn’t looking to synthesize classic rock into something more “modern” (see: radio-friendly); they’re just rocking for the hell of it, and as such, there’s a certain purity that can be found in Fits, a purity that extends beyond simply recording an album with analogue equipment and worshipping at the altar of “Communication Breakdown”.
Which leads us to what is ultimately Fits’ greatest strength and—simultaneously—its greatest weakness: the band’s remarkable sense of overreach. Over the course of this album, White Denim try just about everything in the classic rock playbook, leaving no cliché unused. Throwing in some sitar work at the end of the Zep-indebted freakout “Say What You Want”? Why not! Doing a complete acoustic British popsike homage (“Regina Holding Hands”)? Sure! Adding layer upon layer of screeching vocals to create a full-blown Wall of Sound during the bone-crushing “All Consolation”? Give them a reason not to! They even throw in the faint tappings of a Casio drum machine during the end of rambling lead single “I Start to Run” just for the hell of it, making for what is arguably the group’s only modern concession during the course of the entire album, and a sly wink to the age of which their pastiche sound resides: music that looks forward by looking backwards, and not apologizing for a single damn thing.
Hearing all these different stylistic excursions at first makes for a rather disjointed listening experience, however, almost as if the band is overcome with the need to try to be eclectic. Yet repeat listens slowly reveal the brilliance of Fits, each element deftly playing off another to make for a remarkably cohesive rock time machine. Just listen to the extraordinary “Everybody Somebody”, wherein the band times their vintage keyboard bursts with near military precision, coming in right during the chorus and elevating the song into something more than a mere jam session—it gives the track a feel of authenticity that positively cannot be bought with major-label dollars. This track had to have been made in 1969: there’s seemingly no other explanation for it. It’s not too long after this that we’re led into the wounded closing ballad “Syncn”, where things start off hushed and quiet (lots of lo-fi acoustic finger picking as recorded through a dusty microphone) before building into a stuttering group shout-along, the tension building and the track ending just as abruptly as the album started.
Forget that “I’d Have It Just the Way We Were” could have easily been a Mamas and Papas single with just a bit of studio polish (or, at the very least, a Cryan’ Shames track) or that “Mirrored and Reverse” sound like a long-lost Iron Butterfly B-side. White Denim has found a musical identity through their idols, instead of just because of them. Fits is a garage rock record unlike anything we’ve heard in the past several years: a modern-day disc that may very well have been made somewhere between 1967 and 1971. In fact, try playing these tracks for your friends and tell them that these songs are from an obscure 40 year-old vinyl album that you dug up not too long ago. Everyone will believe you, everyone will sit in awe of the sheer spectacle of it all, and you’ll quietly sit in the back of the room and laugh, knowing that everyone will wonder how this band never received an invite to Woodstock, while simultaneously being introduced to the best rock record released so far in 2009.
Thus is the power of rock and roll. Thus is the power of White Denim.