Through seven years and six albums, White Denim has been unafraid to try a variety of different styles on for size. The band’s debut EP Let’s Talk About It introduced us to punk rockers willing to get their hands dirty with some homemade guttural distortion. The breakout album Fits, the band’s third full-length and first proper release on an American label, favored heavy psychedelic rock: wah-wah guitar, “Light My Fire” organs, and robust albeit chaotic percussion. Reviews of recent live shows throw around the words “jam” and “fusion band,” -- terms that bring to mind open-toed sandals and patchouli to most indie rockers.
Corsicana Lemonade, White Denim’s new release, is no exception to the pattern. The band’s sixth full length album finds the musicians polishing the rust out of their sound with the help of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s production. Gone are the guitar distortion freakouts, muddied vocals, and erratic drumming of earlier records. The new sound might be less than enticing to fans of the group’s grittier early output, and the album suffers by taking fewer songwriting risks than their debut or Fits, choosing instead to excavate the over-mined shaft of blues-rock . In that regard, White Denim’s latest never quite stands out from the pack of artists taking a similar approach (The Black Keys, Heartless Bastards, Jack White’s various projects). Its greatest strength, however, is that it’s a marvel of production work. The ten tracks on Corsicana Lemonade hearken back to the classic rock n’ roll days when lo-fi was a dirty word. Tweedy and co-producer Jim Vollentine are apt choices for this purpose. The spotless recording never enfeebles the music’s rock swagger; instead it showcases it.
The opening lick of “At Night in Dreams” makes it abundantly clear the Austin four-piece has embraced its Southern roots this time around. The boogie shuffle of the single “Pretty Green” and the title track emulate commercially viable blues-minded rock artists like Thin Lizzy and fellow Texans ZZ Top, sometimes a tad too closely. In fact, the Blues is ubiquitous throughout the album, showing up in song titles and song structures alike (“Cheer Up / Blues Ending,” “New Blue Feeling”). With most songs hovering around the 3:30 mark, there are only brief hints at the band’s “jam” live reputation, like the abbreviated but potent guitar interplay on “Cheer Up / Blues Ending.”
Despite the heavy blues influences, Corsicana Lemonade is far from a downtrodden trip to the Crossroads. For a myriad of “classic” artists ranging from Elvis to Zeppelin, the blues functioned as a wellspring of endearing and enduring familiarity. The same can be said for White Denim. So tracks like “At Night in Dreams” or “Come Back” seem oddly familiar even at first listen. (“Didn’t I hear this on a sports bar jukebox a few months ago?”)
In their continuous search for genres to incorporate, the members of White Denim have decided to take it back to the years when the guitar was King. They’re certainly capable enough musicians to do so: The majority of tracks showcase Austin Jenkins’ and frontman James Petralli’s profound ability to dole out magnetic licks and riffs across the fretboard. But because of the limitations of its song arrangements, Corsicana Lemonade cannot help but feel a bit like a nostalgia trip: The album ends up ranking as the sleekest and most immediate record the group has made to date. But it’s not the most innovative.