In 2016, White Denim’s days of raw garage rock are so far behind them that most fans wouldn’t be blamed for struggling to associate early singles like “Let’s Talk About It” with the soulful rock approach the band has become known for over the past five years. From the expansive psych of 2011’s D or the blues-filled classic rock approach of 2013’s Corsicana Lemonade, the four-piece have steadily carved out a niche for themselves with a faithful and proficient spin on pleasing, revivalist rock.
It’s a streak they continue on Stiff, a record that feels like their most throwback to date. The album comes roaring out of the gate with the blitzing riffs of opener “Had To Know (Personal)”, showing both the band’s virtuosity and confidence. White Denim have no qualms announcing themselves as a forceful, retro-inclined act, and while the introduction may be slightly jarring in its faithfulness to a bygone era, it serves as a good introduction to the lane that the band has fully aligned themselves in.
Never a band to be dour or brooding, it’s still striking to see how jubilant they sound throughout Stiff. Single “Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)” finds frontman James Petralli putting on his best James Brown impression to lead a rollicking, funky song all about “trying to have a good time.” The first half of the record is filled with upbeat numbers like this: faithful, energetic, and if not groundbreaking, enjoyable enough.
Pockets of more experimental subcultures aside, the Austin scene from which they come has gravitated towards a rear-leaning, soulful rock approach in the past few years, and White Denim has stepped that way in turn. Gary Clark Jr., the supremely talented blues rock guitarist, is arguably the biggest name to emerge from the city in the 2010s, and it’s hard to not hear his influence on many of the acts frequently championed from the area, especially White Denim. Texas as a whole is in a soul renaissance, from the Sam Cooke idolatry of Dallas’s Leon Bridges to the powerhouse gospel of Houston’s The Suffers. With those inclinations built into White Denim’s DNA in the past few years, the musical climate of Texas has created an environment for the band to thrive in.
Those strengths especially come forward on songs like the slow-burner “Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)”, which finds Petralli exploring his falsetto on a tender ballad that sounds built perfectly for an outdoor set on a hot Austin evening. It’s purposeful and distinct, something that the band loses on the second half of Stiff. Tracks like “I’m the One (Big Fun)” find the band meandering and languid where “Real Deal Momma” or “Mirrored In Reverse” are little more than second-rate pastiches of the more memorable cuts on the album’s first half. By the time the muted closer “Thank You” comes around, most of the momentum from the earlier half of the record has dissipated. With the record coming in at a lean 35 minutes, the deflation in the second half becomes noticeable, leaving a solid EP’s worth of stellar material.
Ten years into a fruitful career, White Denim aren’t quite the intriguing up-and-comers that they were in the late ‘00s. Though not as old as their retro influences may suggest, the band has grown into maturity and now feel at ease with their place in the Austin scene. Stiff represents the moment where the band has settled into a groove, and it likely won’t take anyone by surprise or win back anyone put off by their recent work. Petralli and co. haven’t sounded as at ease before as they do throughout Stiff, even while pushing their technical mastery further past any of their previous work. There’s only so much traction that can be extracted from adhering too closely to styles this familiar, and White Denim don’t provide quite enough edge to differentiate themselves. It’s undeniable that they have the chops, and the moments where they tap into that fully are when they they truly shine.
Essential Tracks: “Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)”, “Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)”, and “Holda You (I’m Psycho)”