On “Dark Sided Computer Mouth,” a standout from White Denim’s 2007 debut EP, Let’s Talk About It, the trio lays down some truly nasty funk-punk before lead singer James Petralli gleefully asks someone off-mic, “Come here, you wanna sing?” For their first few years, this off-the-cuff moment summed up the White Denim experience. The band was laid-back enough to invite anyone to the party through big gang-vocal choruses and intensely danceable rhythms. Despite being granted “next-big-thing” backslaps in both their hometown of Austin and by the broader blogosphere, the band's blog love didn’t really lead to greener pastures. Since then, they’ve moved from their unhinged past towards mainstream respectability by toning down some of their past eccentricities. On D, White Denim’s fourth full-length album, that anything-goes mentality is still apparent, but it’s more of a wise, carefree nature than youthful I-don’t-care bravado.
When White Denim first started making waves, it was due to their vast musicianship. The trio packaged punk’s urgency with funk’s sexiness, tied together by the rhythmic dexterity of Petralli’s slashing guitar, Steve Terebecki’s bubbling bass, and Joshua Block’s razor-sharp drumming. Other influences have crept up over the years, including blues, jazz, prog-rock, folk, and—most notably on 2009’s Fits—psychedelia. D is the sound of the band giving in to these tendencies and cooking them all up in one big, Texas-sized stew. They have the chops to largely pull it off, and the addition of Austin Jenkins on rhythm guitar frees up Petralli to truly stretch himself and space out.
The songs are jam-packed with ideas but also decidedly jammier. “Burnished” marries White Denim’s love of funk and rock, and when they cut it to half-time on the chorus, the band sinks into an irresistible groove that carries over to the instrumental, guitar-effects laden coda “At The Farm.” A newfound heaviness fits White Denim well, with both “Anvil Everything” and “Bess St.” showing off Petralli’s magnetic voice amid metallic touches. Straight-up Latin jazz (the humid “River To Consider") and straight-up country (“Keys”) are just a few of the many curveballs they dish on the record.
But for all the creativity, there’s a certain fire that’s missing. The jagged energy that set White Denim apart from so many others has been rounded out, replaced with a relaxed streak and lots of noodling that wears down by D’s end. It’s a record that seems to be a fork in the road for the band, perhaps bridging their past with a more-focused future. They used to be the life of the party. Right now, White Denim’s cool with hanging back and seeing where that party takes them.
Austin, Texas’s White Denim is a difficult band to categorize. At times they scuzz out with the energy of hardcore Nuggets enthusiasts. At others they noodle around like a Grateful Dead cover band. They’ve been compared to Captain Beefheart, and they’ve been called the greatest working bar band in America. Because of the band’s manic variety, its albums can seem inconsistent. It takes a while to get a handle on what each song is doing. “Drugs,” which is the first song released from White Denim’s fifth studio album, D, channels breezy 1970s melodies and acid-rock histrionics. The song’s a pretty strange trip, especially considering it’s barely three minutes long. D is another attempt to bottle White Denim’s particular voodoo, and whether it succeeds or not, at least no one will accuse it of being boring.