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White Denim - Performance Music Album Reviews

On their shaggy, wild-eyed seventh album, the Austin rockers sound like a band rejuvenated—or, at least, a band that remembers what people liked about its music in the first place.

If you haven’t checked in with Austin rockers White Denim in the past five or so years, here’s a refresher: After gaining blog buzz for their gnarly, unpredictable tunes in the late 2000s, they joined artists like Santigold and Mos Def on Downtown Records for their fifth album, 2011’s D. Under estimable producers including Ethan Johns and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, their sound mellowed, taking on a more sanded-down, straightforward feel. As the buzz (and the broader influence of blogs over the music industry) faded, band members Josh Block and Austin Jenkins peeled off to write for, record with, and back up Fort Worth rock-soul throwback Leon Bridges.

It wasn’t such a dramatic transition for Block and Jenkins, considering that White Denim had spent most of the current decade leaning into the soulful aspects of their sound, growing smoother and, in turn, less distinctive than they had been during their noisy early years. So it’s a bit of a surprise that Performance, the band’s seventh album overall and first for new label City Slang, is so shaggy and wild eyed.

Recorded in White Denim’s new Radio Milk space in downtown Austin, with founding members James Petralli and Steve Terebecki manning the production booth, Performance sounds like a band rejuvenated—or at least a band that remembers what people liked about its music in the first place. The album kicks open the door with a run of cuts that play fast and loose with rhythm and melody, featuring miniature breakdowns and guitar-riff emissions so thick they might violate EPA standards. There’s a sense that White Denim are having fun here, from the proggy synth arpeggios that shiver through the center of “Moves On” to the drum patter and tricky bass licks of “Backseat Driver.” And such playfulness allows the band to flex its capable musicianship. (It’s practically a given that these songs will sound very good live.)

The colorful abundance of Performance is reminiscent of another guys-rocking-in-a-room album from earlier this year: Chicago psych bros Post Animal’s When I Think of You in a Castle, which fused skill and melody to similarly potent effect. But while Post Animal aren’t shy about venturing into heady territory, Performance finds White Denim sticking comfortably within the confines of more familiar classic rock sounds. The closest they get to entering a trippier realm is in the closing minutes of the sprawling “Fine Slime,” when a jammy, grimy groove starts to fade out, replaced by some errant noise. But then the grit returns at full blast. You can hear hints of the Beatles (don’t laugh) on the album, as well as blues-pop titans and fellow classic rock disciples the Black Keys, who leave an indelible imprint on opener “Magazin.”

It’s unlikely that fans of either band would be too bothered by the imitation, which says something about the kind of listener who typically seeks out music like White Denim’s. Their grinning, good-natured rock doesn’t place much value on originality, but that doesn’t matter much to fans who can’t get enough of good old-fashioned rock’n’roll. Compared with what’s considered cool in both indie and mainstream music circa 2018, White Denim possess all the cultural capital of an ironing board—and I don’t really mean that as an insult. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they’re offering an intermittently thrilling ride in the ancient jalopy it’s attached to. Whether you end up jumping on board with Performance will depend on the extent of your own predilection for “real music” nostalgia, but those who do find themselves in the passenger seat are likely to have a pretty fun time.

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