What came first: was it the concept or the confidence? Everything about the title and cover art of White Denim’s seventh album provokes innuendo. Without the confidence to back such a concept up with solid tunes the Texas rockers’ latest full-length could have been dismissed as another cheekily-titled album outshone by its own cover art. But that’s not the case here. Stiff is out to get you loose, and it’s positively dynamite.
This album is bulging with so many deliciously moreish tracks, and what they all create is a fantastic sense of atmosphere. Think American-style steakhouses, barbecues, homebrewed beer and malt whisky, Man vs Food, The Dukes of Hazzard when it was cool, and everything about Primal Scream’s Dolls (Sweet Rock and Roll).
Establishing this consistency is surely thanks in part to producer Ethan Johns, who is White Denim’s first external producer. The record was also a first for new band members Jonathan Horne and Jeffrey Olson – following the departures of drummer Joshua Block and guitarist Austin Jenkins. So the results are pretty remarkable.
The clean take off of sparky garage-rock opener Had 2 Know (Personal) sets the tone right away. Guitars whine, tambourines shake and drums crash in a fit of chaotic excitement. Meanwhile, frontman James Petralli wails with the confident drawl of Dave Grohl and Dan Auerbach combined. These exuberant instrumentals, and an undertone of funk (Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)), continue throughout the album.
But rather than start the party at boiling point and risk burnout, Petralli and crew know when to cool things down. At the half point, there are two strong changes of pace. The first, Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love), sees Petralli changing tone to attempt the high croons of a R&B singer. This had the potential to go horribly wrong, but Petralli’s conviction is genuine. And then there’s (I’m the One) Big Big Fun, a tight serving of romantic yearning over chilled desert blues that’s a short cry from Patty Larkin’s Anyway the Main Thing Is.
The funkified rock grooves alone on Stiff are enough to fuel a weekend-long party. But the lyrics elevate the album further still. There’s humour to be found in the juxtapositions and wild verses that Petralli delivers with gleeful swagger (“I dropped out of school, but now I’m writing the rules”). Every song has its hook, yet the choruses and verses bring out fragments of narrative which encapsulate the feeling of being on a losing streak and the go-getting revitalisation of self-worth when you pick yourself up again (“Imma real deal mumma, I still got a lot to prove / May be confused about a few things, but honey I’m on the move”).
If White Denim’s intention was to come up with a title – and cover – that would deliberately provoke sniggers and, at the same time, dare you to find out just what kind of music lies beneath the innuendo, they have succeeded. Stiff combines the best of The Black Keys, Primal Scream, early era Kings of Leon, and a generous helping of funk into a vivid Austin festival scene to lose yourself in. It is the hip-thrusting, beer-drinking, good-time getaway that you never knew you always wanted.