Austin, Texas four-piece rock outfit White Denim are a prolific bunch, their latest effort Side Effects being their ninth studio album since 2008. While the lineup has shuffled around a few times, the band have not changed their approach a great deal. They borrow from the golden age of blues and southern rock while chaotically blending in layers of freakish psychedelia. They exhibit excellent musicianship and a carefree willingness to experiment without losing an endearing rootsy charm, at times throwing in some slick Marc Bolan-ish glam rock sleaze for good measure. At their best, White Denim’s music can be a hell of a lot of fun.
Opening tune “Small Talk” starts the album off on a spark. Rollicking southern rock rumble into layers of vocal echoes and whimsical feedback loops. The band does not shy away from the cowbell, inviting the listener to stomp and holler along while murky licks and playful noodling intertwine throughout the track’s runtime. There are many individually interesting ideas sprinkled throughout, but overall this song is too busy for any one particular aspect to settle in.
The soulful southern rock revival continues on the superb “Hallelujah Strike Gold”. Frontman James Petralli howls on top with his gravely voice. The instrumental arrangement is a marriage between the earthiness of blues and the cerebral qualities of math rock. The track showcases some airtight complex runs while weaving in and out of odd time signatures.
Next, the band explores much groovier terrain on “Shanalala”, a track somewhat reminiscent of The Black Keys. Staccato vocals punch through the verses while carried by a driving bass groove. Jagged guitar riffs and proggy synths cut and dice at calculated moments.
“NY Money” is the emotional centrepiece of the record. Its trebly feel is completed by bright synths and sun-kissed organ swells. While this is still clearly a hazy, psychedelic mind trip, an acoustic heavy opening gives the song a much gentler feel. Providing a fully-fledged out narrative accompanied by introspective guitar shimmering – especially on the triplet built solo at conclusion, it is reminiscent of heartland rockers The War On Drugs.
“Out of Doors” toys with some zany acoustic slide guitar and some tasty harmonic work. The Dirty Projectors-esque fingerpicking passages are, if anything, impressively technical. It wouldn’t be White Denim without some studio manipulation to give it a level disorientation, while throwing some bird chirps in just for the sheer quirk. It is a pleasant way to break the album into two halves, but it ultimately doesn’t have enough time to develop into anything truly special.
“Reversed Mirror” most plainly shows the band’s allegiance to The Allman Brothers Band with guitar runs that wouldn’t sound out of place on Brothers and Sisters (1973). What initially is built on a bluesy shuffle rhythm morphs into a full-blown acid tinted jam session. With a hypnotic half tempo break, and some subtle keyboard drizzling, White Denim hold on to their abilities to surprise the listener.
While serrated and angular guitar riffs slice through “So Emotional”, it is possibly the catchiest and most melodically based cut off the album. The soulful vocals backed by a pair of swirling guitars and synths make for an exuberant chorus. And there is still space for the band to play around with their wacky guitar space-outs.
A noisier “Head Spinning” shows the band’s affinity for more aggressive sounds. They have played with elements of punk rock in the past, and those qualities are on full display on this fast, high-octane head banger. With its dizzying vocals and ping-ponging guitars, it sounds like the brainchild of Parquet Courts.
Album closer “Introduce Me” has true mud-on-the-tyres appeal with its dirty fuzz sound. The squelching synths, washed-out vocals and frenzied feedback loops are intoxicating. Much is going on behind dense walls of reverb. There is a ride-heavy drum pattern at the front of the mix, lending the rest of the track’s offerings to be mined by attentive listening.
Unlike their fellow classic rock revivalist peers, such as the much-maligned Greta Van Fleet, White Denim does not seem to be simply cashing in on cheap nostalgia, nor are they really trying to sound like anyone or anything. Although their influences are obvious, they throw it all together in an enjoyable synthesis.
While Side Effects is a strong and perfectly enjoyable record, it could be said that they sound a bit dialled in now on their ninth album. At this point, they know what works for them and there is no clear desire to steer off course. While it sounds like they are having fun in the studio, nothing is particularly inspiring or lasting on the album either. Still, it’s hard to imagine long time fans of White Denim will find much to be disappointed by. And for those who seek raucous, beer-guzzling irreverence with economical songwriting, White Denim is surely fulfilling.