So here it is, then: the first great album of the coronavirus pandemic. Back in early March, White Denim suddenly found themselves at a loose end following the cancellation of hometown festival South By Southwest and their subsequent US tour. Needing to “keep busy”, the band hit upon the idea of writing, recording, mixing and manufacturing a brand new album in just 30 days. This being Austin, there’s now a vinyl pressing plant down the road from their Radio Milk studio, making the whole caper tantalisingly feasible.
What they didn’t account for was the tightening of lockdown conditions 10 days into recording. Suddenly, the whole tenor of the album was forced to change, from a back-to-basics garage-rock record played by four guys in a room, to a remote, crowd-sourced effort. Yet these restrictions have only spurred on White Denim to make a richer, more meaningful album than they might originally have imagined. To colour in their sketches, bandleader James Petralli took the opportunity to reach out to a number of musicians from the band’s wider circle, including fellow White Denim founder Josh Block. The two former best friends had fallen out after Block quit White Denim in 2015 to play drums for Leon Bridges. But hatchets have been buried and Block’s presence on three songs encapsulates the album’s unexpected themes of unity and all-in-this-togetherness.
Thankfully, though, World As A Waiting Room wears its righteousness lightly. As much as it’s an album for the times, it’s also a reaction to the temporarily adjourned “heady prog” album the band spent the previous year recording. World As A Waiting Room is full of the gleeful clever-dumb posturing and breakneck riffage that lit up previous White Denim albums like Fits and Stiff, combined with the unburdened pop smarts of Last Day Of Summer and Petralli’s solo Constant Bop.
Barrelling opener “I Don’t Understand Rock And Roll” is a classic White Denim manoeuvre, simultaneously satirising and celebrating their chosen metier. The overdriven two-chord riff could be Thin Lizzy, the terrace stomp rhythm could be Slade. But of course White Denim add a galactic fanfare intro and a brilliant Cars-style solo, while also slyly removing a beat from the bar somewhere so it feels as if the song is constantly racing off ahead of you down the street, uncatchable.
“Matter Of Matter” and “DVD” are even faster, making the seat-of-the-pants solos doubly impressive. Not for the first time, the thick harmonies, frenetic pace and sheer impish joy of the whole affair put you in mind of Supergrass, with a flicker of more acerbic intent à la Queens Of The Stone Age. More is usually more as far as White Denim are concerned, and by inviting all their mates to pile in, each song bursts with ideas, every overdub trying to outdo the last. There are playful musical references aplenty: is that a backwards Beatles riff? Can that really be the bridge from “Everybody Hurts” inserted into the frantic rockabilly of “Eagle Wings”? Deliberate or subconscious, it all adds to the fun.
“Slow Death” – not the Flamin’ Groovies song, but they surely know it – starts with 15 seconds of screeching dentist’s drills before locking into a brisk, bass-driven psych groove splattered with laser-gun noises and a ridiculous overabundance of vocal echo. “At a standstill, won’t stop running,” wails Petralli, “My mind, a refrigerator humming.” Yet even this depiction of anxiety and insomnia is fantastically moreish.
If you start looking for them, there are plenty of lyrical clues as to the strange conditions under which these songs were created. However, in terms of specific references to the pandemic, White Denim have crammed most of them into one song, the majestic “Queen Of The Quarantine” – music by Marc Bolan, lyrics by Randy Newman (“You don’t know what you got ’til the day that it gets tested”).
As with the whole idea of making an album from scratch in 30 days, in lesser hands this kind of thing could come off as a throwaway lark. But as we know by now, White Denim are congenitally unable to produce anything slapdash or rote. World As A Waiting Room hits the spot as a peppy new-wave blowout, but it’s also testament to how people can pull together under difficult circumstances to create something joyous and inspiring. A solo acoustic livestream is one thing, but this is the lockdown pick-me-up you really need.