Last Day of Summer
By Chris Molnar | 8 November 2010
White Denim should be the patron saints of all bar bands. They’re proficient at a variety of genres without sacrificing their core sound, and have an engaging, off-kilter mutability that feels more humble than underdeveloped; they’re the Platonic ideal of a versatile, workmanlike band. That they’ve managed to avoid both commercial success and indie hype despite boasting one of the best major label albums of 2009, Fits, said major label triumph, was a testament to the tricky benefits of such a sound: they can mature out of sight of over-scrutinizing eyes, yet are cursed to be a band’s band, loved and appreciated by a wonky, weird few.
Last Day of Summer, a free download featuring new recordings of unused songs and ideas from previous albums (as well as a reworking of Fits track “I’d Have It Just the Way We Were”), tempers the manic energy and technical depth of their more official work. The intentionally casual production can sometimes make Joshua Block’s stuttering, aerobic drumming sound repetitive, sanding away the punk edge and letting the virtuoso instrumentation drown out the harmonies and organ melody on “If You’re Changing” or the schoolyard sing-song hook of “Home Together.” The loose, improvisational tone works better on sketchier instrumental songs like the Radiohead-goes-prog “Incaviglia” or the tense jazz of “Light Light Light,” which brings to mind the Lounge Lizards and Tortoise in equal measure.
Those songs immediately precede the rougher Tim Kinsella-indebted cut of “Some Wild Going Outward”—James Petralli’s voice a soft croon over roiling tom toms and acoustic guitar—the first of a series of dynamic tracks to combine the straight-ahead garage of album’s opening run with the experimental instrumentals to follow. “Champ” is probably the best song on the album, centered around an interlocking groove, each instrument filling in different notes before jumping into an uncharacteristically soaring chorus and the warm, winning hook of “and I hope we get along / and I hope you like this song.” The structure is unorthodox, the guitar prone to restless discursion. But unlike, say, Joan of Arc, White Denim’s music is always in service to a more conventional core. On songs like “Champ” or “Shy Billy,” the brief moments where the slightly a-melodic verses resolve into straightforward choruses showcase a band at its best, a band earning the slightest payoff for albums’ worth of unflashy grindstone riffage.
That said, Last Day of Summer is a bit heavy on the unflashy side of things, especially after Fits’ hyperactive gearshifting and Technicolor dabbling in dub and psychedelia. But despite the inessential nature of some songs, and perhaps the inessential nature of the album as a whole, for sympathetic ears it serves as a kind of skeleton key to White Denim’s bewildering powers, as much as any collection of demos or rehersal tapes. Compared to similar, inferior (and far more costly) off-cycle collections like Peter Bjorn & John’s Seaside Rock (2008), it demonstrates the band’s uncommon focus and consistency.
White Denim is a band in the most ideal translation of the term: not as a matter of luck, or raw, unrefined talent, or opportunism, but as a vocation, as a way of life to be taken seriously and as a vessel for the flourishing of some serious talent. That such a solid collection of songs is available for free is a sign of confidence and altruism that any serious band worried about money could maybe take into account. If the product is this good, if the art is this important, why not make conversion and conversation easy?