Of all the genres listed for White Denim on Wikipedia—indie rock, art rock, prog-rock, Southern rock, psychedelic rock—my vote for Most Accurate goes to Southern rock. This is largely because of the ubiquitous goddamn electric guitar that never goes away, and yes, I made that sentence redundant to simulate the listening experience. The constant noise is a little like listening to a person who is very uncomfortable with silence and feels the need to fill every little gap in conversation with meaningless comments about the weather or what they ate for breakfast. There’s little doubt that Austin Jenkins is good at playing his instrument really fast, but over-exposure makes it boring and predictable. The situation would be tragic if it overwhelmed what was otherwise a strong album, but that’s not the case with Corsicana Lemonade, White Denim’s sixth studio release. Instead, it’s like taking every half-decent Southern rock band from 1986, mixing them in a blender to round off any unique crags or rough edges and then molding the liquified product into a cover band that performs behind a wire screen in a dive bar in the first hour of a B-movie about motorcycle gangs.
Which feels harsh, now that I’ve written it, so let’s go track by track to see if we can’t justify the vitriol.
1. “At Night in Dreams”
This is actually a promising start, and the second-best song on the album. The lyrics are vague enough to not spoil the music (sadly, this won’t be true for very long), and James Petralli’s expressive voice is effective, especially in the chorus. He can be smooth and intense from line to line, and it’s a nice counterpoint to Jenkins’ playing, which is mercifully understated and functions a false promise of what’s to come. When Jenkins finally opens up, the brief solo makes sense. Despite what comes next, credit to White Denim for coming out strong.
2. “Corsicana Lemonade”
This is the only trace of anything “psychedelic” I could find among the 10 songs, and this is where the guitar really gets overbearing. It bops along at the start, then gets shreddy and just clutters everything. I think Jenkins might be kind of a show-off. I really can’t tell if the song would work without it or not; it’s like asking what the ocean would sound like without the sound of water. Mostly, “Corsicana Lemonade” makes me want to listen to Tame Impala, and naming the album after one of its most unremarkable songs seems like an odd choice.
3. “Limited by Stature”
In a piece of meta-titling I can appreciate, this is the shortest song on the album. “I can’t decide if I prefer the quiet or a seldom ending clatter,” sings Petralli, and it’s another example of his penchant for throwing odd words and cluttering up lines the way Jenkins clutters up the soundscape. Also, believe me, he prefers the seldom ending clatter.
4. “New Blue Feeling”
This is a legitimately great one, and the only really memorable melody I encountered on Corsicana Lemonade. It’s a slow build, noticeably missing the overt electric licks until the end, and Petralli’s voice is at his best, low-key and building to a well-earned climax. It also contains one of the few gripping first lines—”Dreamed of a letter from a hospital bed/I don’t recall what I’d said at all”—the kind that suggests a narrative rather than a banality, and actually draws you in. There’s an underlying wistfulness here, and when Jenkins inevitably comes in with his riffs, they’re actually a complement to the emotion of the song. Lyrically, it keeps getting better (“If this is goodbye, I have to ask you to try/to remember that I was once strong” is probably the most complicated line on the whole album), and this might be the only example of White Denim’s disparate, cluttered elements combining into something worthwhile.
5. “Come Back”
When the start of a song sounds like it could be the opening to Monday Night Football, you’ve made a mistake. This feels cliche from the get-go, and it’s also the moment when I realized it failed the drunk test, which is simply whether or not I could have a few beers and get a pleasant, positive vibe with this album in the background. The answer is no; it would ruin my buzz. It would even ruin my stupor, if it was later in the night. The lowlight here is when Petralli starts in on some combination of rapping and scatting.
6. “Distant Relative Salute”
Some Allman Brothers-y noodling, combined with a sense that somebody in the background is using a steel drum. They’re not, surely, but you know when you get that steel drum feeling? Like something is right on the verge of being called “easy listening”? Here again, too, Petralli just jams words to fill every nano-beat of a line. “May not be coming back so you won’t have to wait long and I’ll do the same,” he sings, in a single burst that I swear only takes four seconds. It’s just cumbersome.
7. “Let It Feel Good”
This is the band’s take on blues (jammy, not spiritual), I think, and includes fun couplets like:
It’s hard to be a duo, it’s hard to be a trio, it’s even harder to be a quartet
I’m told that going alone is just about as hard as it gets
I can live with this song, and it might even have been strong at two minutes and change. Instead, it lasts almost four, and the filler is more boring Southern rock crescendo noise.
8. “Pretty Green”
Sometime this week, I will identify in my head exactly what this song sounds like, and I’ll go, “shit,” because I’d really like to sound smart and name it now. It’s right there on the tip of my medulla, but it’s not coming. In any case, there are two kinds of the Familiarity Sensation in music. The first is the good kind, where a melody is so essential that it feels like it’s existed forever. The second kind is bad, because it’s so bland that you know it’s been done a thousand times before. Even if you can’t name the exact song, you know it’s that ultimate music critic’s insult: Derivative.
9. “Cheer Up/Blues Ending”
Here’s what I’m talking about with Petralli’s lyrics:
A kind of look in your eye and a look on your face.
You’re a leading contender in the human race.
First of all, what does any of that mean? Second of all, to use a Chandler Bing intonation, could those lines be any lazier? Third, seriously, what does it mean?
Those questions are rhetorical. It’s gibberish, and no, it doesn’t appear there’s much thought behind them. Maybe I’m overly concerned with lyrics, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t understand how you can create a song and not be more conscientious about the words. Here, another example:
Put a step in your boots and a shine on your teeth.
Like a Tuesday afternoon in an old-time limousine.
There’s also a monotonous horn in this song that will be isolated and used to torture prisoners one day.
10. “A Place To Start”
At first I thought the album closer sounded like something you’d see on adult contemporary radio. Then I thought it was more like a theme song to a family sitcom. Then I thought it was more like a family sitcom theme song that got rejected, because the melody wasn’t quite up to par. (This was the song that beat it out, in my imagination.) On the plus side, the highly predictable closing instrumental actually develops a bit of a groove and manages to justify itself as the album winds to a close.
We’ve enjoyed White Denim’s earlier work; there’s obviously some talent and promise here, and I know I’ll be listening to “New Blue Feeling” about 12-15 times over the next week. But on the heels of 2011’s critically hailed D, Corsicana Lemonade is a plain, uninspiring disappointment.