Within mere seconds of “Don’t Look That Way At It,” the leadoff track to Exposion, White Denim make perfectly clear that they aren’t a typical garage rock trio. James Petralli, like an octopus on amphetamines, hammers out a riff completely absurd in its impossibility. At once it is breathtakingly complex, and expectedly sloppy. Yet in his own limitations, he manages to make some kind of rhythmic harmony out of the scratchy surge of fingers flying over frets, like Black Lips covering Battles in a moment of drunken clarity. These guys are on to something, here.
On Exposion (yeah, that’s really how it’s supposed to be spelled), the Austin, Texas, trio balance Beefheart-worthy experimental chaos, rhythmic instrumental excursions and catchy-as-all-get-out rock `n’ roll delicately, though not necessarily carefully, allowing each burst of noise and each heartily strummed chord to bleed into a new direction entirely. “Heart From Us All” is a prime example, kicking off with a bluesy, heartland riff exercise (with a touch of math rock showiness), then changing course a minute and a half later and giving way to a more conventional pop melody.
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where White Denim is taking you on their sonic journey, as their wonderfully crafted artistic left turns give the sense that they’re operating with a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants sensibility. But the songs are just too well written for that to be true. Insanely catchy standout “ieiei” shuffles along a ’60s-style psychedelic waltz, ushering in the infectious repetition of the title vowels, only to stop and restart as a Tortoise-style jazz-pop breakdown halfway through. Elsewhere, as in “Shake Shake Shake,” the band creates a sense of unpredictability and instability without even diverting far from their structural course. Yet the sheer intensity of their surf-punk jam session gives the impression that it could all collapse at any moment.
White Denim never exactly play it straight, but for all their twists and turns, they offer up some truly exceptional pop songs. The two-chord jangle of “Transparency” is like a meeting between No Age and the Black Keys, igniting a soulful, punk rock hoedown that’s loud and fast, with a lot of heart. The ultra-cool skip-strut of “You Can’t Say” has the smoky swagger of Spoon, with a touch of Broken Social Scene’s communal joy. “Don’t Look That Way At It,” for all its riff-roaring dizziness, is an overwhelming blend of rhythmic pulleys, culminating in a wordless, falsetto chant that’s as catchy as they come. But the band saves their highest art rock ambition for closer “Sitting,” a bouncy, Beatlesque opus with a touch of Freddie Mercury’s flair for the dramatic, and a saxophone to chisel a permanent smile on your face. Man, what a song.
There’s something rebellious and unruly about White Denim that’s also incredibly charming. From their defiance of rhythmic norms, to defiance of commercial norms (this album’s not available on CD) to, hell, even defying spelling, White Denim does their own thing, and quite impressively at that. As Petralli sings on “ieiei,” “I know that it’s wrong to keep wild things locked in a cage,” he could very well be talking about his own band.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.