IN FIVE SONGS
White Denim is my jam band. Reigning current favorite anyway, but that’s significant because I’ve never really had one. Despite having a Deadhead college roommate and one of my best friends a devoted student of Phish, I’ve never really found love for a band in the actual jam band genre. Certainly the Austin foursome I’m writing about would never market themselves as such, but their versatility, unpredictability, and deft musicianship are for me the ideal elements needed in a high-quality band that jams. There’s undeniably some granola flavor to White Denim, though with their Southern roots they’re more likely to choogle than noddle. But since their literal garage band beginnings last decade (their first three albums were recorded in a trailer), they’ve incorporated jazz, psychedelia, and soul into their sound, bringing groove and nuance to their guitar-based rock.
Now in their second phase following the defection of long-time members Austin Jenkins and Josh Block to fellow Texan Leon Bridges’s band, founder James Petralli has recruited rapacious players Jonathon Horne on guitar and Jeff Olson on drums from his solo Bop English project. The new lads resembled graduate assistants to Petralli’s rumpled professor when I finally caught the band live for the first time this month at House of Blues Chicago (Thanks, Do312!) in support of new LP Performance, out in August on City Slang Records. House of Blues is a venue I visit begrudgingly due to its upselling gift shop ethos, but after a headspace-addling week, White Denim provided the escapism I needed, impressively alternating from crunch to flutter with a more spontaneous edge than found on the clean and solid Performance LP. From the back of the room, my appreciation for this band that does a lot of things very well, especially within the collaborative alchemy of a live gig, leveled up significantly, and I thought perhaps I’d like to start trading some tapes of these guys.
If you’re in the market for a jam band of your very own, here are my favorite mileposts to celebrate White Denim’s first ten years of activity.
1. The First Flash: “Shake Shake Shake” from Workout Holiday (Europe)/Exposion (USA), 2008
“Hey! Say what? What?!” White Denim burst out onto the music blogs, a bit past the new millennium’s garage-rock revival, but still sounding irresistibly raucous and authentic on this throwback junkyard jam, which remains a live staple. It appears on both the American (Exposion) and European (Workout Holiday) versions of their debut LP.
2. The Pivot Point: “Regina Holding Hands” from Fits, 2009
Second full-length Fits took a big swing by balancing their familiar scuzz-rock with a jazzy, lower-key second LP side, peaking with the soaring, poignant “Regina” and announcing there was much more complexity and adventurousness available from the group.
3. The Slept-On Classic: “New Coat” from Last Day of Summer, 2010
Founding member and bassist Steve Terebecki ranks Last Days of Summer as his favorite in the band’s catalogue, despite it having been released for free online and never properly pressed up, and its songs seldom making their way into setlists. But the final entry in their original trailer trilogy is White Denim’s most front-to-back cohesive, with subtle and charming songs of romance and commitment, typified by the jangling “New Coat.”
(Honorable mention to “I’d Have It Just the Way We Were” with differing versions appearing on both Last Days and Fits.)
4. The Signature Hit: “Pretty Green” from Corsicana Lemonade, 2013
After expanding from power trio to quartet on 2011’s D and graduating to proper studio bookings with big-name producers, White Denim linked up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for possibly their best shot at/closest avoidance of crossover success, Corsicana Lemonade. “Pretty Green” announced the LP with a walloping classic rock hook, but just so you knew they weren’t going Kings of Leon, they released B-side versions of the single in bluegrass and dub reggae stylings.
5: The Big Ballad: "Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love)" from Stiff, 2016
Despite losing two members to soul classicist Bridges, Petralli didn’t back away from the continued integration of R&B elements into White Denim’s recipes on Stiff and Performance, including Memphis stomper “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)” and the gorgeous ode to devotion “Take It Easy,” which finds him skillfully switching from falsetto to roar in one of his strongest vocal performances.
(The sound is not perfect on this fan-recorded live video, but it closes with an unexpected jam section, as a final illustration.)