The cliché “They’re better live” was invented for bands like White Reaper. The records are good, but onstage is where the band’s wonderfully scuzzy blend of pop-punk and garage rock goes stratospheric. It’s rock for rock’s sake, outfitted with the gleefully immodest stage vocabulary of an ‘80s hair-metal band: kick-flips, dueling guitar solos—cocky gestures the average introverted indie band avoids like asbestos. The band’s Wikipedia page claims they once played for 19 hours straight in Berlin, which is surely a joke, although it’s a testament to White Reaper’s live stamina that it seems believable.
Maybe that is why The World’s Best American Band, the Kentucky group’s devilishly catchy second full-length, opens with the roar of an approving crowd. It is not a live album, and this sounds like a large audience packed into an amphitheatre, the sort of venue White Reaper might be headlining in a more excellent world. The song that emerges, which shares its cheeky title with the album, is sheer self-affirming cock-rock (“Rally up and dress to kill / Lace your boots and crush your pills”), a motivational speech for greasy-haired dirtbags.
On the album, White Reaper manages to distill all the strut and swagger of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” into one pithy, 10-song set. The production is a bit clearer and less sludgy than on 2015’s White Reaper Does It Again, and the songs comprise the quartet’s most confident collection to date. Two of them (“The World’s Best American Band,” “Little Silver Cross”) even hurtle past the four-minute mark.
There are not a lot of surprises; White Reaper mostly stays in its lane, risking redundancy on some lesser tracks (“Daisies”). But the hooks are relentlessly strong (see: “Judy French,” “Tell Me” or “The Stack” with its ascending chord pattern), Tony Esposito’s sneering vocals are hoarse and muscular in good measure (think Paul Westerberg with a bad head cold), and the riffs—well, they’re riffs. The scraping staccato guitar of “Eagle Beach” is a gem, and on “Tell Me” you can hear fingers sliding across the fretboard in between palm-muted power chords. Also included are subtle production flourishes (the piano in “The Stack,” a snatch of xylophone on “Daisies”) that serve to brighten and broaden the group’s sound.
This band is indisputably retro in sound and style, though which decade it’s a throwback to is subject to debate: glimmers of early Kinks, early 2000s garage revival (Vines, Hives, et al.), some ‘70s glam. White Reaper also seems to share its love of bombastic hard rock with contemporary bands like Japandroids and Beach Slang. If the success of those bands is an indicator, maybe the world’s best American band will get to headline that amphitheatre in a decade or three.