Any band that chooses the name White Whale is bound to have their approach, style and personality well mapped out. For this Lawrence, Kansas group, which consists of former members of Butterglory, The Get Up Kids and the Higher Burning Fire, the coherently packaged whole comprises songs with themes of seafaring, epic art-rock jaunts, a recurring character named Admiral Yummyman, and brilliantly illustrated artwork, which depicts the Admiral riding a bucking leviathan, though curiously without any water in sight. Yet the one thing you will not find on their debut, WWI, is a sea shanty; be thankful for that.
Sailors, beasts of the deep and all, WWI is not an album that sounds like it was actually made by salty dogs. I don’t recall hearing any concertina, but rather large amounts of guitar, bass, drums and keyboard or piano. Their MySpace page quote is “Roxy Sabbath,” and to some degree, that’s accurate nomenclature. The eccentricity of Roxy Music is more than a tad conspicuous, as is the dark heaviness of Black Sabbath. Though like modern contemporaries Murder by Death, The Decemberists or Okkervil River, their songwriting is largely propelled by the colorful narratives of frontman Matt Suggs, who breathes life into his characters and commits to his chosen path of nautical raconteur.
This doesn’t become quite as apparent at first, as opening track “Nine Good Fingers” is a fairly straightforward indie rock song, recalling latter day Sunny Day Real Estate. Its chorus does soar, Suggs and his mates commanding “let’s write a new song/one note forever/one note for all.” It isn’t until the second track, “O’William O’Sarah,” that Suggs’ ne’er do wells begin to show their faces. Before erupting into the mighty chorus, Suggs sings, “you’ve been warned twenty times/you’ve been warned to be kind,” which gives way to the explosive indictment, “everybody knows what you did/who are you trying to kid?” The song is a lengthy one, stretching past seven minutes and sprawling into a delay-addled freakout. That it’s followed-up with relatively straightforward standout “The Admiral” is a testament to the diversity and range of this album.
The fourth track, “I Love Lovely Chinese Gal” doesn’t quite live up to the excitement of the opening trio, opting for faux-Oriental sounds that come off as a little corny. It’s followed by a similarly exotic, yet considerably more invigorating track titled “What’s An Ocean For?” And in this track, Suggs answers his own question, singing “but to carry a ship ashore.” Can’t argue with that. After peaking with the blazing rocker “We’re Only Temporary Ma’am,” the second half of the album descends into considerably less immediate material, sometimes opting for a slower build or merely remaining quieter altogether. “Forgive the Forgiven” sounds, at first, more like a Black Heart Procession outtake than anything else, ominous piano chords and steady drum machine clicks navigating the song toward the dark clouds ahead. Over the course of several minutes, it builds into a tango-inflected power ballad, still somewhat romantic and dark, yet ultimately more powerful.
“Yummyman Farewell” suggests ambience and tranquility in its intro, yet becomes a louder, harder riffing rock song. At track nine, it’s strangely placed, as it sounds like an album closer. In this case, that song would be “One Prayer,” which has more of a soulful, gospel influenced sound, yet rocks all the same. Through and through, White Whale creates music as enormous as their Biblical and literary namesake, though without the horrific implications. Yet, ’tis a mighty distance one must travel from Kansas before he reaches the sea.
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.