Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: White Rabbits - It's Frightening (* * * *)

A sophomore album from White Rabbits has felt like a long time in coming though it’s only been two years. Their debut record, 2007’s Fort Nightly, wasn’t a complete success, but the young band showed such promise I was eager to hear whether they could fulfill it on subsequent releases. Tunes like “Kid On My Shoulder” and “The Plot” showed an ambitious, talented, and occasionally explosive group of musicians that seemed to be on the trajectory to greatness, though it was also clear they had some work to do. With their new album, It’s Frightening, White Rabbits haven’t completely lived up to my lofty expectations, but they have created another solid, and perhaps more consistent, collection of songs featuring their unique, percussion-heavy rock sound.

The White Rabbits’ style hasn’t changed significantly; the active drummers (two of them), the pounding piano, and the often muted guitars all play similar rolls as before, but It’s Frightening has a more settled, grounded approach than that of their debut. The songs are slightly less bombastic with fewer noisy vocal eruptions and a greater measure of restraint, which at first listen seems to play against the band’s strengths, yet ends up adding to the record’s overall appeal after a couple spins. It’s unclear to me what portion of the change producer Britt Daniel was responsible for creating, but his fingerprints certainly seem to be all over the music. Songs like “They Done Wrong / We Done Wrong” and “Company I Keep” marry familiar White Rabbits piano riffs with a Spoon-esque acoustic snappiness that’s immediately satisfying, while “The Salesman (Tramp Life)” takes things further, leaving the bass and percussion at the forefront and removing the keys completely.

Not surprisingly, it’s the record’s first single and lead track, “Percussion Gun,” that has taken the lion’s share of the album’s recent attention. The track is an aptly titled drum barrage that starts things off in high gear followed by the slightly less spastic, but still aggressive “Rudie Fails,” which continues to channel the energy of the band’s debut. The more frenetic pace served White Rabbits well on Fort Nightly and continues to do so on It’s Frightening, but while the band sounds the most comfortable and confident with that familiar approach, it’s the group’s willingness to take a few detours that makes It’s Frightening a better and more interesting album than its predecessor.

After a fairly strong, but expected three-song opening set, the record slips into the murky, eerie “Lionesse,” a clattering mix of percussion, piano, and singer Stephen Patterson deliriously repeating the phrase “listen to me.” The track disrupts the momentum a bit, but it’s genuinely fascinating and adds some needed personality to the proceedings. The similarly dark, but more fully formed “Midnight and I” is among the best and most unique cuts here, a slowly burning, almost psychedelic tune that transitions smoothly into the more upbeat “Right Where They Left,” providing a fantastic one-two punch late in the album’s 35 minutes. Though it may take longer for some of these lower-energy moments to reveal their charm, the record benefits immensely from the band’s less direct stylistic presentation.

It’s Frightening closes on a somewhat sleepy note with “Leave It at the Door,” which is pleasant but not especially gripping, but the simultaneously more subtle and exploratory lens through which White Rabbits have chosen to allow us to view their material is generally very compelling. Admittedly, I miss the more frantic and fun songs from Fort Nightly, but the new, more curious and expressive outlook the band possesses is refreshing and entertaining in its own way. Most importantly, however, this record is obviously the work of a band looking to expand and improve themselves, which makes me again hopeful that the boys will produce something truly spectacular next time around. In the meantime, It’s Frightening can be appreciated as an enjoyable and accomplished step in the right direction.

Last Word: It’s Frightening is a solid sophomore effort from White Rabbits that shows the band taking a more adventurous and less direct approach to crafting a unique and exciting indie rock album.

2 comments:

Dallas Petersen said...

Thanks for bringing their latest to my attention. I have Fort Nightly, and I'd say that this latest album really is a step-forward. For me, it is usually all about the hooks, and It's Frightening is chock full o' them. It might be inaccurate of me to credit Britt too much, but it sure seems like he had a positive influence on White Rabbits.

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