[22 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Two years ago, when Ty Segall collaborated with Tim Presley’s White Fence project on Hair, the two made excellent music together. But, perhaps because Segall’s career was on the upswing, the album felt more like his record and was (fairly or not) considered an addition to his quickly growing discography. Of course, the more music Tim Presley puts out, the more unfair the focus on Segall becomes, and in retrospect Presley adds quite a bit of texture to Hair, even if the album drags him out of the bedroom and into a studio.
Segall and Presley are together again on For the Recently Found Innocent, with the former here to co-produce and play some drums. This is the first White Fence album recorded in a proper studio, but that feels less like a departure than a natural development. Presley’s albums have show him honing his musical focus more and more over time, culminating in the excellent pop jams of the last White Fence album, Cyclops Reap. But last year also saw Presley put out Live in San Francisco for John Dwyer’s Castle Face label, and we got to hear just how much of a rocking force White Fence could be outside of the tape hiss and lo-fi whirring.
Somewhere in between the intimacy of Presley’s home recordings and the sheer force of his live band lies For the Recently Found Innocent. The live drums and crisp instrumentation give Presley’s compositions a new sort of zeal, and even if the production value rose for the record, Presley thankfully doesn’t stop playing with murkier textures. The lead hooks on “Anger! Who Keeps You Under?” are treated in treble and echo so deeply that they sound like they’re underwater, which cuts against the warm, dry strum of the acoustic guitar underneath. “Sandra (When the Earth Dies)” is a hazy thumper that starts with perfectly clear vocals from Presley, as he recounts, among other things, how “all the junkies wave goodbye.” It’s as straightforward a country-rock tune as White Fence has ever offered, but then it is tilted just enough on its axis by organs that start as carnival playful and turn by degrees church serious. It’s a shift that makes the tumble-down, twanging hooks of “Wolfs Gets Red Faced” a surprising turn instead of more of the same. It also sets up later sonic shifts in the record, like the way guitars go from warm plinking to cool, dripping notes on “Hard Water”, or the distant echoing notes of “Fear” stretching every note sung, every string plucked, out into a larger melancholic expanse.
This shift, from warm to cool, from relief to worry, happens often on For the Recently Found Innocent, but it’s not an album always shuffling into grey. “Like That” is a beautifully lean, charging rocker, with Presley taking on a charming falsetto. “Arrow Man” takes a punk-rock ax to the shimmering melodies of some of Presley’s musical heroes, most notably the Kinks. The album closes on the bluesy crunch of “Paranoid Bait”, a song full of guitars every bit as tense and knotted up at the title implies, but they also unravel into confident marches.
The album captures well the irrepressible energy that always simmered under the surface of White Fence’s earlier work. It’s also the perfect time for Presley to find a new mode of recording these songs, as his craft has continued to grow. If Cyclops Reap was a high-water mark in his songwriting, then For the Recently Found Innocent continues that focus and, at its best, even ups the ante. A few songs here, the dry-strummed “Goodbye Law” or the brittle “Actor”, feel like they retreat a bit from the studio treatment, happy to sound like past White Fence songs. But these are rare moments of looking back and, in fact, these songs probably improve an old formula with tighter hooks rather than merely repeating it. Because, no matter where this was recorded, it is still very much a Tim Presley record. He’s written and recorded songs that sound like the past but could only be his present, and he’s getting better at it all the time.