Tim Presley thinks he recorded the great lost Kinks album; too bad that came out 40 years ago.
Imagine you have a friend who is pretty smart and has some interesting things to say, but your friend thinks that, in order to sound smart and interesting, he or she needs to speak with a French accent (because all of his or her favorite philosophers are French, say). White Fence does the same thing, but with the Kinks. Tim Presley, known from his other band Darker My Love and perhaps from his involvement with the Strange Boys, writes good songs with catchy tunes, but puts on a Ray Davies accent and makes all of the production sound like an early Kinks album. The affectation overwhelms the talent, and by the end of this long album whatever was interesting is so buried in backdating that one feels annoyed.
Sure, there are some other influences here -- Syd Barrett, Swell Maps and other Nikki Sudden, and so on in predictable fashion. But the most important thing in rock and roll is to walk the fine line between incorporating and emulating your influences. Rock and roll is a rehash; there’s little to no originality. That doesn’t mean that you need to recreate as faithfully as possible the sound, style, and general aesthetic of your favorite albums. (Sometimes this aspiration goes right, by going slightly wrong, so that a band attempting a backdated sound finds something “new”, like Ariel Pink, for a recent example).
A telling example is Presley’s cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”, which closes the album. All he does is add a quarter-note piano and a harmonica (and fumble a couple of words) to make the song his own. The overall effect is cheapening. This song is simple and silly, but greatly effective when Thunders does it. (Hey, he ripped this riff off from himself, an earlier New York Dolls track, “Lonely Planet Boy”). All of Presley’s projects veer too closely to straight up reproduction of influences, rather than building on them. Darker My Love does San Francisco ‘60s rock, the Strange Boys do early ‘60s US garage, and White Fence does ‘60s British psychedelia. The first White Fence album already announced this point of view; Is Growing Faith kicks it up a notch.
Since White Fence went for it, all the way, then we have no choice but to hold it up against the thing it’s trying to be. White Fence does a mix of early Kinks production with a bit of mid-Kinks songwriting. Now, early Kinks are great as a garage band, but the mid-Kinks are better because Ray and company strived for a total vision, which meant more innovative songwriting and production, with narrative lyrics and innovative arrangements. White Fence backs off the innovation, writes slightly more than simple songs, and sticks to simplistic garage production. So, in my mind, it comes off as lazy. “Your Best Friend” is a good idea and a fair song, but it’s so dependent on Presley pulling off his Ray Davies voice that it becomes impossible to listen to.
The other ingredient in White Fence is a Syd Barret quirkiness -- Presley obviously doesn’t possess the storytelling ability of Davies, so he goes for the silly: smaller songs, non-narrative, absurdist. When you take this approach, it’s hard not to think of Television Personalities, who took on a similar idea as White Fence, but did it much more cleverly.
At first, I actually liked this album, but it suffers from that psychedelic problem of not knowing when to edit -- too many songs that are too repetitive. The album doesn’t cohere; it wanders. A loose and weird album can be good, but it needs a bigger spark of inspiration (read: eccentricity) than this. Everything from the first moment comes across as such a put on. White Fence fits in that scene of precious psych-pop bands with their toy instruments who rehash old sounds -- often with good sense for melodies -- but who meanwhile miss the sexiness of rock and roll with their childish paint-by-numbers approach (or in this case, crayon drawing by numbers -- see the album cover). The songs are playful, but the concept is humorless since it’s too reverent. Who cares if you like the Kinks and ‘60s psych rock? So do I. Let’s move on.