Monday, July 09, 2007

Album Review: White Drugs: Harlem


The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Harlem, White Drugs' debut full length, is how goddamn loud the thing is. And that's probably what everyone else who's heard it says about it too. It's loud. It's aggressive. It "rocks," dude. And all that is well and good. I can appreciate a bare bones, balls to the wall rock record as much as the next guy, and Harlem certainly qualifies as such. But as everyone knows, simply "rocking out" really isn't enough to make a record enjoyable-- in fact, it can sometimes be a real bummer. Fair To Midland "rocks." Burden Brothers "rock." Whatever annoying project Mike Patton is involved with right now probably "rocks." And although White Drugs certainly provides a bigger adrenaline rush than any of the aforementioned bands, what sets them apart from the majority of the hard/fast/loud army in DFWd is the respectability of their influences and the intelligence of their execution. Their take on early punk/trash glam/hardcore has already been done a thousand times, sure, but there hasn't been a local band that's made it sound this good in quite a while.

Drawing from the pantheon of bratty punk rock that takes the listener on a journey from the New York Dolls to the White Stripes via New Bomb Turks and Electric Eels, Harlem is a fast and ferocious ball of aggression that sounds like a locomotive rushing towards an inevitable derailing. But thankfully, throughout the album's short running time, it rarely does. Opening track "The Stinger" truly sets the tone for the rest of the record, bursting out of the gates with a split second of feedback before the band's guitar/bass/drums arsenal kicks in with full force while vocalist Jeff Helland quickly establishes himself as one of the most intense and unique singers in the area. His voice is truly a calling card for the band, landing somewhere between Jack White sassiness and Darby Crash recklessness with a shrieking, menacing presence that lands miles above most local rock singers in both brashness and charisma. The sound of a recently uncorked bottle of rage is probably the best metaphor I can locate to describe Helland's delivery, and White Drugs' ability to sound as though they've just stumbled across a good three chord punk tune with nothing but dumb luck provides him the perfect vehicle to go apeshit while maintaining enough control to keep the songs structured. We're talking about unchecked aggression here, dude, and it's nice to hear a local singer deliver it without sounding rehearsed.

Of course, after reading some of these descriptions, the phrase "garage rock" is probably popping into your head. And you probably have a point. You can certainly hear some stylistic similarities between White Drugs and bands like Hot Snakes, The Hives, and early Mooney Suzuki, but most of that seems simply incidental, likely due to a mutual love of The Stooges rather than any attempt at highly belated bandwagon jumping. Besides, who's going to make a crude garage influenced record in 2007 unless they actually mean it? White Drugs definitely mean it, and they sure as hell know what they're doing.

After it's opening track, Harlem continues to pack punch after punch of concise, stripped down gems that mostly find a healthy balance between punk abandon and pop accessibility. "Kleaning Kru" takes a bouncy, blues influenced rock riff and adds a crunchy three chord guitar backing to highlight the improbable catchiness of a chorus that commands you to "wipe that fucker clean." Elsewhere, "Heil Vacation" locks on to a choppy guitar groove and rides it to an explosive chorus while showcasing small pieces of distorted surf guitar parts that add an element of atmosphere to a song that is much more of a rush than a mood.

Much of the second half of the record showcases the vocals of Christian Breit, who ventures more to the Iggy Pop/Richard Hell side of the mic with a deeper, more stylized delivery that juxtaposes nicely with Helland's. And although it's probably just a coincidence, Breit's songs, especially the quick one-two punch of "Born Long" and "Dig a Hole," seem to bring out the Dead Boys/Voidoids/Heartbreakers influences that give most of the album a jolt of intelligence and authenticity lacking in similarly heavy local releases. Breit is quite the compelling vocalist as well, giving White Drugs not just one but two competent frontmen who both seem to have studied their history books in order to craft highly distinctive styles that couldn't compliment the music better.

The only sense in which the album falters is the slight feeling of overload one gets after listening to several ferocious, similarly styled songs one after another, resulting in a sense of fatigue that sometimes makes it a bit difficult to listen all the way through. Additionally, the inclusion of "I Hate Your Face (Deprise)," a remake of the album's second track that appears as the album's fifth track, comes off as redundant, even though the remake is performed in a completely different manner than the original. Those concerns aside, Harlem is the rare local record that comes off as smart without ever sounding smart, reminding us that a tasteful set of influences doesn't necessarily equal an overly academic or audibly inauthentic approach. White Drugs is as gritty and powerful as any rock band in the area, and they're intelligent enough to realize that it takes a bit more than that to make a record worth talking about.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

did sam m. write this review?

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Walter said...

"8 year-olds dude..."

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

having known the band more intimately, I think you hit the nail on the head. with every word.

but I'm surprised to see no 13th elevator reference! ha!

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you catch these guys live on an "on" night, the show's fucking amazing. They have their off nights though.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

YES!!! right on. These guys are great people as well.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:38, Nah, Sam M wrote this:


"I'd review the new disc, but honestly, the Stooges/Sonic Youth rehash scene was already ruined by the greatness of Austin's And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead...and, sadly, White Drugs' Harlem does nothing to add to the pantheon of snarling, overdriven 2-minute rock. But you're welcome to disagree after listening to their MySpace samples."

2:55 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

white drugs = good band

4:56 PM  
Blogger stonedranger said...

what is the stooges/sonic youth rehash scene?

5:12 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

Harlem's a great record.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

white drugs, produced by Spot. if you ain't from austin you ain't know what that done sposed to be meanin. and hell you'ze lucky as hell you ain't from austin, feel me?

3:22 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

good people, good music. fairly rare happening. DFW could use more bands that "rock" and are good. Rock music that isn't disposable or trying to sell you some look (rockabilly, punk, metal, grunge, emo).

3:29 PM  
Blogger Defensive Listening said...

Spot is more associated with Redondo Beach than Austin even though he lives there.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the people - friendly in person.
the music - enjoyable minimalism.
- my opinion.

9:21 PM  

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