White Denim's James Petralli bops 'til he drops
White Denim are not a band you can accuse of sticking with a formula. Beginning life as a wily, Hendrixy garage trio, they have matured into freewheeling rock’n’soul groovers, via profitable diversions into windmilling prog, blue-eyed soul, jazzy post-rock and Afro-Cuban funk. There are still a few genres, however, they have yet to explore – which is where Constant Bop comes in.
While his bandmates Austin Jenkins and Josh Block have recently been helping to nurture the more conventional talents of retro soulman Leon Bridges, White Denim frontman James Petralli has been quietly cultivating his alter-ego, Bop English. In the amusingly deadpan promo photo accompanying this release, he can be seen playing a banjo with a snake on his lap while sporting a 1990 England football tracky top. If that suggests a foolhardy fusion of bluegrass and Britpop, then the truth isn’t <so> far removed. At least, Petralli’s usual rootsy raw materials are refracted more strongly than ever through an arch, Anglophile filter: witness the impish Bolan boogie of “Dani’s Blues (It Was Beyond Our Control)” or the way that “Long Distance Runner” playfully subverts classic songwriting conventions in a manner reminiscent of 70s Macca at his best.
On the other hand, Petralli hasn’t diverged too drastically from his previous body of work: “Sentimental Wilderness” resembles one of D’s more serene moments (distinguished by subtle use of a vocoder); “Fake Dog” harnesses some the frenetic daftness of “I Start To Run”; and “Trying” sounds like a frisky cousin to Corsicana Lemonade’s “Pretty Green”. It’s no surprise to learn that the three other members of White Denim are among the dozens of contributors to Constant Bop, though they were never in the room at the same time, hence the priority of taut song structures over virtuosic flourishes and extended jams. Yet the album still rollicks and rolls like a White Denim record, with the addition of ribald brass and jaunty piano, giving the impression of having been recorded during a boozy studio all-nighter rather than on a sun-dappled Texan porch.
Certainly, Petralli hasn’t fallen prey to the usual indulgences afflicting solo side-projects. There are no half-finished experimental sketches here, nor clumsy forays into world music or electronica. He’s even managed to resist the opportunity for faux-humble soul-baring. In fact, Bop English – the moniker given to Petralli by a former roommate – turns out to be quite a slippery character: a skilled raconteur and dispenser of crooked homilies (“There ain’t nothing free that didn’t cost somebody something”) whose waggish manner isn’t always appreciated (“My intended hyperbole goes unnoticed at the counter”) and who suffers from paranoid visions of his own demise (“I like to imagine a killing spree where every victim is me”). By inhabiting this garrulous and charming yet over-analytical and secretly vulnerable character, Petralli actually reveals more about himself than a straightforward confessional singer-songwriter record might have done. These quirky and compelling vignettes are clearly the work of a man constantly trying to balance his pragmatic and creative sides, his duties as a new father with those of a good-time rock’n’roll ringleader.
Handily, Bop can also do love songs, or at least songs that remind us that love requires constant, careful tending. If the psych-country shuffle of “Falling At Your Feet” is a teensy bit sentimental, then “The Hardest Way” – a hint of Nick Drake and even Bernard Butler to this one – is gloriously honest about the daily battle to suppress our own pride and pettiness so that love can prevail. He may dress like a cross between Davy Crockett and David Seaman, but when it comes to affairs of the heart, it turns out that Bop English knows exactly what he’s talking about.
A fast-paced, multi-faceted, furiously entertaining record that gradually reveals hidden emotional depths? Chalk another one up to the man in White Denim.
Why did your college roommate dub you Bop English?
It’s obvious, but I was studying English Lit and listening to a lot of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Which technically is post-bop. But I was just happy to have a nickname.
Did you write these songs specifically for the album or have you been amassing them over a longer period?
It’s been an ongoing process for a long time. Some of the tunes were written for White Denim, but something wasn’t right about them for the band. I didn’t have a grand scheme or anything. It was actually 28 songs when I handed it into the label. They just said, ‘Hey man, you can’t put this out, nobody’s going to listen to that!’ It was going to be a double album where the first half was really trippy and haphazard and the second half was more straightforward and romantic. So the final album is just selected works from the double I was making. I’ll probably do a ‘complete edition’ in a very limited run at some point.
What did you learn from the acid trip described on “Struck Matches”?
It was actually salvia. I was handed a pipe and it turned out to not be pot, so it blindsided me… It was a really intense out-of-body experience where I saw these little snapshots of my life. But my biggest takeaway was to be much more cautious about what I’m smoking in future.
Is there going to be a live Bop English show?
Yeah, we’re coming over in May. I have a pretty cool band of freaky musicians. It’s not quite as groovy as White Denim has gotten over the last few years – it’s a little more aggressive and we do a lot of heady improv, which is fun.
INTERVIEW: SAM RICHARDS