Whitey: The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is a Train

[12 November 2006]

By Tim O'Neil

Whitey is in the rare position of being in the exact right place at the exact right time. Some bands are either cursed to be perpetually ahead of their time (the Pixies and the Meat Puppets are great examples of this phenomenon), while some remain, irrespective of their talent, perpetually five minutes behind the times (Stone Temple Pilots, we hardly knew ye). The type of music Whitey play could not be more au courant if it tried. That does not necessarily diminish the album’s charms, even if the results are resolutely unsurprising.

The obvious comparison is also probably the most telling—Whitey reminds one of nothing so much as LCD Soundsystem. It’s not a straight analogy, as Whitey eschew a lot of the straight dance strategies upon which James Murphy has built his sound. But even if The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is a Train is less of a dance album, the influences are the same: ‘70s funk and punk, krautrock and glam rock, post-punk attitude and acid house volume (sometimes even all at once, as on “Y.U.H.2.B.M.2”), all mixed together with the consummate skill of genre-hopping music nerds with big record collections. Imagine Marc Bolan jamming over Can loops with some particularly gnarly psychedelic keyboards and sub-David Byrne deadpan singing, and you might just have an idea of what exactly Whitey sounds like. Any number of tunes on this album could have wandered in off the Rapture’s Pieces of the People You Love, and again, the comparison is quite apt: the Rapture’s sophomore release presented a far more disciplined and concise sound, and Whitey presents about as disciplined and concise a distillation of this sound as is conceivable.

If anything, this precision serves to undercut the album’s effect. The glam guitar riffs and keyhole-tight rhythm section of a song like “A Walk in the Dark” seem almost too polite to be taken seriously (the semi-acoustic reprise is a nice touch, however). The problem with constructing a sound almost exclusively out of obvious influences is that it’s easy to become defined by a tame sense of craftsmanship. LCD Soundsystem avoids this trap (or at least, they manage to avoid it most of the time) by readily indulging in the shaggiest cliches possible: interminable song lengths, hypnotically repetitive rhythms, messy psychedelic breakdowns. The glee with which he embraces the least potable aspects of his influences allows him to surpass the level of finely-tuned irony that unfortunately defines a great deal of contemporary indie rock. No one produces a twelve-minute long psychedelic jam unless they really believe it. That kind of honest connection to the material is simply not present with Whitey. The songwriting is simply too disciplined, the sound too well defined—there are no fuzzy edges or disconcerting loose ends. A track like “Ha Ha Ha”, an organ-drenched drone sitting neatly between Death in Vegas and the Velvet Underground, positively cries out for some kind of excessive breakdown. And yet the track remains resolutely structured, with neat instrumental breakdowns and a keen sense of the pop songwriters’ structural responsibilities.

Perhaps an album like this is simply not something to which an experienced critic like myself can reasonably be expected to bring a fresh ear. It’s so easy to sit down and diagram every track to exacting specifications that it becomes an almost irresistible temptation to ascribe motivation to the musicians, to infer calculated cynicism in place of honest homage. I’m not a mind reader, however, so I shall resist the temptation. But it must be said that while Whitey produce an extremely accomplished sound, it will primarily appeal to those who can also appreciate bands like Interpol and She Wants Revenge, unabashedly derivative groups that can still produce capable music. In a postmodern age, perhaps there really isn’t anything cynical about such blatant appropriation. But you can’t help noticing that the precious few places where Whitey stand out on the strength of their own convictions—such as the lilting, subdued title track—show the most obvious potential. Ultimately, my advice for Whitey is the same as my advice for any number of similarly gifted young bands: you’ve proven quite capable of mimicking your record collection, now how about some real songs?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/whitey-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-is-a-train/