In June 2010, after three years in Austin, I sold whatever possessions I could and moved to New York City on short notice.
A friend there had died. I relocated for something that had passed, and it dawned on me soon after arrival that I'd made a big mistake. I missed Austin – its speed, its simplicity – and was having trouble finding outlets that could bring me back to pace. I took solace in Red River bands on tour, trekking to Williamsburg for the Happen-Ins and Hoboken for Hacienda and the Honeybears. I wolfed down bland queso at a Maudie's knockoff called Lobo. Nothing helped. I was a stranger in a strange land.
That September, six weeks into my living in a cell-sized brownstone in Brooklyn, I logged onto Facebook to find that White Denim, one of my favorite bands, had released a free-to-download album they'd recorded in a minute.
Last Day of Summer reminded me of backyards and barbecues, of endless afternoons spent along muddy banks on Lake Austin. It was a departure for the Austinites, but also quite familiar: White Denim was still stretching out, flipping time signatures, and pushing into unexpected directions. Yet the songwriting had cooled – and simultaneously evolved. Opening remake "I'd Have It Just the Way We Were" went jazzy, while follow-up "Home Together" sounded soulful. Third track "Tony Fatti" moved briskly but never abrasively. The band that could kick your ass from three sides had just made an LP of love songs, soul songs. Songs you could siesta to.
Summer became my album that autumn. I listened to it everywhere. And when I tripped back to Austin in March to cover South by Southwest, I got to see its parts in action four times – once planned, thrice, I swear, by chance.
I moved back to Austin that September, warding off the NYC lifestyle in the process. White Denim played a free show for Kebabalicious' five-year anniversary behind Mugshots one month later, on a backyard blacktop with no stage. They opened with Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" and played for nearly two hours. Barely anybody saw them.
When the Chronicle last caught up with White Denim, the band was still a bearded, shag-haired trio hellbent on recording born-to-die rhythm and blues from drummer Josh Block's Fifties Airstream trailer in Driftwood (revisit "Mothers of Reinvention," Oct. 23, 2009).
The band had just released its second full-length, Fits, first on Downtown Records. They'd circulated throughout Europe and small pockets around the Northeast, but were still considered something of a circus act – musical thrill seekers setting fire to every stage, but never tight enough to wow anybody on wax.
"Antagonistic" is the word White Denim guitarist, singer, and chief songwriter James Petralli uses to describe Fits. One needs only 1:59 of riot act "El Hard Attack DCWYW" to understand why. Since fireball debut EP Let's Talk About It in 2007 through European introduction Workout Holiday and subsequent American LP Exposion in 2008, the only ones who knew where things go were the three guys busting blisters on stage.
Things changed in 2010 after sequencing began for a then-unnamed follow-up for Downtown Records, an album Petralli scripted and the band recorded despite its guitar parts being too complex for its main composer to perform.
"In our first rehearsal to try and see what we could play onstage, it was, like, nothing," he remembers. "'Man, we got a gig in a month and want to play some new material, and I can't play any of it.'"
In came Austin Jenkins, a nimble-fingered Brazos bandmate of Block's who'd been coming around for barbecues all summer. He learned every part and got stage-ready within a week.
"It was dumb," says Petralli shaking his head. "I couldn't believe it."
The new quartet knew they had to release something with Jenkins on it immediately, so they shelved the upcoming disc and loaded back into Block's Airstream. Out came Last Day of Summer, an album comprised entirely of songs Petralli had been fiddling with in solitude for months.
Jenkins contributed mightily to Last Day of Summer's varied sound, but there was also a changing tide within the band's founding members: Petralli, Block, and bassist Steve Terebecki. Petralli, for one, had recently married, and that was starting to seep into his songs, first on Fits ("I'd Have It Just the Way We Were"), then again on Summer via "Home Together," "If You're Changing," and "New Coat." He, like the rest, had entered into his 30s living entirely off the group.
More than that, Last Day of Summer's track list indicated that the band – long built on democratic decision-making that suited each member, even if the outcome wasn't necessarily best for the progression of the band – had begun to think in terms of where its strengths lay.
"Last Day of Summer was a lot of songs that the band wasn't unanimously behind," reveals Petralli. "Songs I had that maybe got pitched for other records but didn't find their place. That was validating for me: 'People would be all right if we put a love song on our records.'"
Written in two weeks and released May 24, 2011, third album D didn't feature the love songs Petralli spoke about, but it did provide White Denim's most unique and successful single to date, "Street Joy," a slow and concise soul tune that put Petralli's vocal range on watch.
"That was one of the last songs for that record," he says, admitting that its opening sequence, a full minute featuring nothing but his voice and some strummed chords, wreaked havoc on his nerves every night on tour. "When I sent that to the band, I really expected them to not like it at all. But they really liked it, and it ended up being a song on that record that a lot of people connect with."
The rest of the album, a 10-track collection Petralli sequenced so that it could translate seamlessly onto the stage, also gave the band fits towards the end of its touring cycle. For 10 months, set lists rarely varied: D straight through, with a few old favorites – "Shake, Shake, Shake," "Say What You Want," "I Start to Run," "Mess Your Hair Up" – sprinkled in between.
D's tour was nearly derailed right out of the gate when Petralli's home got robbed while he was traveling to the Sasquatch! Festival in Washington, but the band performed that day. It's a good thing they did, too. Watching their set from the side of the stage was Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who congratulated the band, then called them up eight months later to ask if they'd open for Wilco on tour.
Tweedy's second call came 11 months later, and White Denim would have to act quickly. In the early months of 2013, just a few months after breaking for the winter, Tweedy informed the locals that he had four free days to record them at his Loft studio in Chicago.
"I think he recognized that we love music a lot," explains Petralli. "He recognized that we're studious about listening and playing. Everybody in our group takes a lot of pride in being able to play; their tones, everybody really cares about the whole thing. I think he could feel that from listening to D. Maybe he just got what we were trying to do. When he was talking about Blue Öyster Cult and Rush, we got it."
Corsicana Lemonade was born out of sessions at the Loft, but they didn't form the framework of the album being released through Downtown Records on Oct. 29. White Denim arrived in Chicago with only two songs: the gradually crescendoing "Distant Relative Salute" and album closer "A Place to Start," which Petralli describes as "a straight-ahead R&B song" but actually fits in like Tweedy's interpretation of Woody Guthrie's "Someday Some Morning Sometime," the last song on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II.
The remainder of the album's 10 tracks came together in a rented house on Lake Austin, where the band assembled a recording studio and brought in local producer Jim Vollentine (Spoon, Charlie Sexton, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) to assist with production on the final tracks. Petralli says his inclusion was more necessity than anything.
"With expectations outside of the group, and within the group, it became too much for Josh [who produced the band's existing catalog] to be the musician he needs to be in addition to the engineer that all these business people expect him to be.
"I love Josh's production, and if I had my way, we'd do every record the way we did Last Day of Summer, Fits, and Exposion. But it was just a little much for him. If we're going to get somebody, we might as well get somebody who's a professional and knows how to be that guy."
Vollentine played no part in scripting the songs, which sound like a mixture of Thin Lizzy ("Corsicana Lemonade"), Steely Dan ("Come Back"), and Paul McCartney's Ram (both "Pretty Green" and "Cheer Up/Blues Ending" pull directly from that LP's "Oh Woman, Oh Why"), but he did enforce its welcome sheen. Along with Petralli's condensed songwriting – all the songs track in at less than 4:40, with one exception, "Cheer Up," which drifts into a sleepy jam – Vollentine's contributions make Corsicana Lemonade the most accessible, fulfilling album White Denim's ever made.
"I still miss that shit," Petralli says of the antagonistic jamboree he, Block, and Terebecki used to get into. "We were trying to come up with new medleys the other day, and we listened to our old songs. We listened to 'Darksided Computer Mouth,' and we were looking at each other like, 'What the hell is this music?'
"We used to just stop playing and all sing together. I miss that kind of absurdity sometimes, but it doesn't feel appropriate anymore. Now we're really doing this. I don't think we could get away with playing 'Darksided Computer Mouth' like we did at Emo's or Mohawk or on the Fillmore stage. I don't think that would really translate."
Blessed are the circumstances that allows us to watch our favorite bands in Austin grow up. This city can talk all it wants about holding court as the live music capital, but most of our bands will burn out and a good chunk will fade away. Few make it out, even fewer make it eight years. White Denim's not just rounded up another album. They've fashioned a career.
That designation is now a necessity, because the situation surrounding its members is changing. Both Terebecki and Block are now married; Jenkins and Block moved to Dallas for opportunities that attracted their significant others. Petralli, who married in 2009 and purchased a house off East Riverside shortly after, welcomed a daughter into the world last winter. He quit drinking on the road at the end of D's touring cycle and started slowing down his driving. He exercises daily and avoids drive-through lines. And he's trying to quit cigarettes – trying – though that's not going as well as he'd hoped.
"I'm still adjusting," he says on the porch out front of his two-story house, which is littered with toys and hosts a table with a notepad, one pack of Camels, and three multicolored bottles containing soap for blowing bubbles. "I'm really attached to this kid. It's weird to talk about, but I think the reason I started writing was this idea of leaving something behind – this legacy. There's nothing bigger than having a kid to do that. I feel like the work has to be better. I want to make the family proud and continue to grow it if I can."
If he can, it'll surely happen in Austin. Aside from the house, Petralli recently partnered with Fifth Street Studios to develop a new recording space that offers "the finest collections of vintage audio equipment," a collection culled from the sessions that wrought Corsicana Lemonade.
"I'm going to raise my girl here," he says. "Hopefully we'll have a couple more. I bought this place. I'm looking at getting some land out west."
As for White Denim ...
"This is our job," affirms Petralli. "This is what we want to do. It's more serious now, but it's a lot more fun, too."
White Denim plays its second weekend of ACL, Sunday, 5pm, on the Austin Ventures stage. Tickets still available.
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