Jim White is focused on the strange side of the rural South. In the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, we see him exploring the intersection of culture, music, and faith (the accompanying soundtrack remains essential listening). His own albums never settle into a defined sound. He’s been known to call it – or at least the early stuff – “hick-hop”. The term may connect to the looping sounds and his own vocal patterns, but it doesn’t do justice to the blend of Americana genres and the spacey experiments that accompany the songs.
What he hasn’t done persistently, aside from exceptions like the memorable “Static on the Radio”, is dive into, well, traditional songwriting. On his latest album Waffles, Triangles & Jesus, White doesn’t suddenly turn into Lady Gaga or, more likely, Kris Kristofferson, but he explores relatively more straightforward songwriting. But he doesn’t change too much; after all, he’s still really good at being weird and Southern.
“Drift Away” opens the album with a slow build and a tone reminiscent of “Still Waters”. If he were willing to do it, White could produce a stellar folk album with these sorts of songs. Instead, he follows that track with “Long Long Day,” which digs into the Appalachian connection to the British Isles, a history that White has long been curious about. Holly Golightly joins him for the goofball number “Playing Guitars”, opining about the fact “the whole dang world” is playing the title instrument while giving very little room to any sort of picking. It’s comedic but catchy, and the sort of track that few artists could pull off.
“Far Beyond the Spoken World”, featuring the band Hog-Eyed Man, takes a casual mood and unusual harmonies to create one of the album’s highlights. The tired end of a jamboree, the musicians fit together various country strings into something reflective and memorable. The band has credits on nearly every track on the album here, and White seems to have brought all his friends into this album, even crediting “a cast of thousands of surly male vocalists”. It’s to White credit that he can weave all of this commotion into a singular vision.
That vision does touch again to pop, though. The middle tracks of the album, “Silver Threads” and Prisoner’s Dilemma” show White in pop-rock mode. These tracks would likely divide listeners. Fans of that weird old South might be put off by the alt-country and indie-rock influences, but these tracks are more accessible (and less sonically complex) than much of White’s music. Taken out of context, they’re good songs; it’s fitting them into White’s body of work that adds the extra interest.
“Reason to Cry” and “Wash Away a World” get back to White’s wheelhouse, stories that explore personal and community relationships, particularly if they involved rural culture, the church, or both. Life can be hot and dusty, and offers of grace don’t always lead to solace. White sends us away with the misstep of “Here I Am” (neither weird enough or invested enough in a straightforward sound to work) and “Sweet Bird of Mystery”, where his patience again lets him uncoil an easy, melodic statement. It’s a confident number and a strong closing. White’s always had a sharp eye for culture and characters and a deep thoughtfulness. He’s typically coupled it with precise and deliberate eccentricity. Waffles, Triangles & Jesus reminds us of his strong sense of melody and structure at the heart of a song, making the album a valuable addition to his work.