I’m going to assume that Justin Roelofs, a.k.a. White Flight, chose his nom de guerre name because he dug the way it sounds and not because of what it means. Nevertheless, the term — which deals with whites moving from areas that are increasingly dominated by minorities — is heavy enough that I can’t help but think he would’ve done well to pick something else. Maybe it doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way, but what’s wrong with “Justin Roelofs”?
About Roelofs: When last heard from, he was one of the two guitarists in Lawrence, Kansas emo group the Anniversary, which trolled the spacier, more experimental backwaters of the genre prior to breaking up in 2004. Roelofs shared songwriting credits with other guitarist Josh Berwanger and projected himself as a sort of emo Syd Barrett to Berwanger’s emo Roger Waters; there can be little doubt, for example, as to which of the two contributed the lyric, “Drink mother’s milk and be free!” to the band’s 2004 swansong, Your Majesty.
It’s unclear what Roelofs has been doing in the intervening two years, but listening to White Flight, it’s safe to say he’s devoted a fair amount of time to expanding his mind, so to speak, and pondering the work of the by-now weirdly influential Devendra Banhart. Also, based on the picture that accompanies the album, wherein a cut-out of a Karen Carpenter-thin Roelofs is positioned between two rainbows, we can venture to guess that he has put some energy into cultivating his square, vaguely Osama Bin Laden-like beard and very little into eating.
Now, I like the Devendra Banhart, but the problem is that he’s spawned an army of knock-offs who have his vocal inflection down but lack the substance and, yes, vision evident on his best records. White Flight, with the aforementioned rainbow picture and credits that thank “All the spirits in all the directions who landed in the microphone,” doesn’t look good. But wait! Opener “Now” has, Roelofs’s Banhart-ian ranting notwithstanding, Postal Service synth drum beats and a really nice hook that I don’t completely understand. That song flows — stretches out, you might say — via a magnificently trippy guitar solo into the way spacier “Pastora Drive,” which, kind of like the prism on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, bends most of the ideas of “Now” into something unrecognizable and possibly great.
There are other great moments here, at the end of the possibly (I’m not sure) fun “Timeshaker,” about half-way through the album. The house beats, jazzy organ and horn passages and indecipherable yelps of the above-cited song fade out into three-quarters of a second of silence, then kind of out of nowhere, an acoustic guitar starts strumming, a passage that soon gives way to a Beck-like half-rap (Roelofs is singing about milk again: “Murder is the milk on her lips”) before returning more acoustic guitar. This is wide-focus, epic stuff, and Roelofs is pretty sharp — or he can be. Unfortunately, Roelofs buries many of the rest of his good ideas, which like everything on White Flight come in rapid-fire succession, under a heap of underdeveloped songs, half-baked beats, and moaned, yelped, and occasionally rapped third-rate Madcap Laughs lyrics.
Roelofs — and I wish he would just go by his name — has boldly ventured out onto the razor-thin cusp of an edge between kitchen-sink brilliance (Beck’s Odelay) and self-indulgent tripe (Kramer’s The Guilt Trip). White Flight isn’t tripe, but it isn’t brilliant, either, and that the album feels a good bit longer than its forty-minute running time is telling.