[23 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
White Lung has only one setting, and that’s to go all out. Then again, it’s not like White Lung gives itself much time and space to do anything other than that on its breakthrough new effort Deep Fantasy, considering how the group rampages through ten punk-pop rompers in 22 minutes. That breakneck speed is what triggers the visceral first reaction that Deep Fantasy elicits, though it’s not like you really get a chance to process what’s happening when it’s happening. To say that White Lung cuts to the chase on Deep Fantasy would be an understatement, since the Vancouver/L.A. outfit launches out of the gate with some of its most raucously catchy numbers before you’re able to settle in: With a sense of drama that’s more threatening than tense, opening number “Drown with the Monster” goes for an early knockout right at the beginning, but then White Lung has already moved on to the anthemic “Down It Goes” before you know what hit you. Just as you’re trying to catch your breath and work your way into Deep Fantasy, it’s already passed you by.
The fast and furious pace that White Lung sets on Deep Fantasy aptly reflects the band’s approach, as they take common punk and underground rock tropes, then run with them in such a fierce, headlong way that you could never really accuse them of following in anyone else’s footsteps. While it’s easy to trace out a lineage that links White Lung to riot grrrl and ‘90s female-fronted alt-rock, what with band principal Mish Way’s confrontational gender-minded screeds often taking center stage, they quickly outrun those obvious points of reference, with a more proficient and ambitious sense of musicianship than the former and a more inherent pop knack than the likes of L7 or even Hole. Rather, it’s with acts such as early Superchunk and one-time tourmates Iceage that White Lung seems to share the most in common when it comes to its sensibility, as a band with punk’s subcultural, in-your-face attitude undoubtedly ingrained in whatever it does, but with a sound that naturally appeals to a wider audience than just the scene it came out of.
Even as Deep Fantasy flies by, there’s something about White Lung’s formula that sticks with you, never simply going in one ear and out the other from one two-minute nugget to the next. Thanks to combining a spot-on punk-pop intuition with a high level of muscle memory for doing what they do best, White Lung puts its very own stamp on time-tested conventions, its take on a well-worn subgenre feeling more urgent, dramatic, and menacing. A lot of that has to do with Way’s commanding presence as a vocalist and bandleader, as the cadence of her voice reaches for and hits a higher pitch of vitality and intensity, whether she’s expressing herself in her full-throated howls, piercing screams, or more yearning rallying cries. The depth and complexity of the way Way expresses herself is most powerfully communicated on “I Believe You”, which she told Pitchfork “is essentially about a friend confiding in you that she was raped or assaulted and afraid to talk about it.” While you wouldn’t expect nuance from White Lung’s fiery, furious approach, that’s just what you get when Way chants, “Don’t take me / You won’t make me / Cause I’ll always / I’ll always win,” as she comes off mad and sympathetic, emboldened and emboldening all at the same time.
Indeed, the all-caps tone and feel of Deep Fantasy have as much to do with the serious subject matter as it does with Way’s delivery. What makes Way such a compelling artist beyond the natural gift of her voice is a mindset that’s not intimidated from taking the most sensitive and thorniest issues head on, engaging concerns with body image on “Snake Jaw” (“If I get fat one day / Will you run away?”) and ranting against the general shittiness of arbitrary privilege on “Lucky One” (“You are the lucky one / And I’m a dying breed / It all comes undone / When you’re in front of me”). The single “Face Down” is a prime example of why and how Way makes herself heard, not just turning the song’s scenario where she’s in a powerless position (“I sink to the belly of the weak again”) into something ironic, but into a flat-out mockery when she sneers, “You don’t make a sound,” as if only so she can defy the imperative.
Yet “Face Down” also provides the clearest case that White Lung doesn’t just get by on Way’s presence alone, but that it makes its mark because of a technical know-how that matches her force-of-nature charisma. On “Face Down”, Kenneth William’s frenetic guitar play doesn’t just complement Way’s anxious vocals, but takes its turns driving the track with its slicing, laser-guided lines. So even when Way certainly provides a striking sense of identity for White Lung, you could argue that it’s William’s versatile guitar work that shapes a musical profile that’s all the band’s own, with a tone that’s too bristling and cutting to be straight-up punk-pop, yet too intuitively melodic to be just a nihilistic thrash. While “Sycophant” is all haste and no waste with its heftier riffs, the ruggedly tuneful guitar leads on “Wrong Star” and “Just for You” are shimmery by comparison, getting as poppy as White Lung does on Deep Fantasy. More thrillingly, “Snake Jaw” splits the difference between these styles without compromising on any of them, as William kicks up a metallic din at the start, only to break out into mosh-ready patterns and speedy mini-riffs that insinuate their way through the song.
Sure, White Lung’s brutally efficient ways can feel a bit limited on Deep Fantasy, and it’s a fair enough to wonder how far White Lung can push itself into any new directions. That said, the closing number “In Your Home” already takes some strides in answering that question, feeling more stretched out and even spacious, as if transitioning from Deep Fantasy‘s two-minute ditties into something more along the lines of a three-minute single. But there’s plenty of time to get to that next step to come, since, right now, White Lung is the band of the moment living in the moment.