Music

White Lung: Deep Fantasy

Deep Fantasy flies by with ten tracks in 22 minutes, but there's plenty to White Lung's punk-pop that stays with you.


White Lung

Deep Fantasy

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2014-06-17
UK Release Date: 2014-06-16
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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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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