Last time we here at TMT checked in with White Fang, the Portland four piece was neck-deep in 1980s thrash punk. 2011’s Grateful to Shred made no bones about its infatuation with classic American hardcore, so much so that a listener could be forgiven for mistaking the band’s basement-quality scorchers for forgotten relics from that era.
While I wouldn’t exactly call Positive Feedback a total 180°, its head is certainly in a different place. White Fang are still making sloppy gestures towards lo-fi punk, but more straight-up hardcore numbers, like the über-tape-damaged “I Can’t Skate” feel almost like an afterthought when held up to pop ditties like “4-track Mind” or the Minutemen-like jazz-punk rumination “If I Had a Van.” The indisputable high point, though, is “Unchain Your Brain.” There’s a weird Phil Spector quality to the song, even though their wall of sound is spackled together from nothing but guitar twang and tape hiss. The impression is helped along, no doubt, by a healthy dosage of cowbell and some of the group’s most unabashedly sappy lyrics. But underneath all of that lurks an earworm of a melody that sticks with you like nothing else these guys have done before.
Yet while the opening tracks of Positive Feedback seem restless with new ideas (another one worth mentioning: the barely-more-than-a-minute “Alien,” which slows front man Eric Gage’s vocals down to a crawl until they could almost pass for Stephin Merritt’s), the middle portion kind of sags under the weight of its own self-indulgent stoner grin. Maybe I’m just too square to be in on the joke, but I feel like even if I smoked a brick of weed a day, songs like “Spaced Out” and “Chill Yourself” would still feel half-formed and sort of pointless. And as far as sly appropriations go, “Band from Macy’s,” the group’s piss-take on “Brain Damage,” can’t really hold a candle to their 30-second Elton John quote from last year’s “Grateful to Shred.” Fortunately, they manage to turn the ship around in time for a stellar sing-along closer, “Drugs on the Moon.”
Five albums and some change into their career, White Fang are remaining steadfast to their lo-fi roots, even as they continue to hunt for less abrasive conventions to work under. They are still a reliable source of goofy scuzz-rock fun, but Positive Feedback suggests, to me at least, that they’re capable of more than this. I can’t help but wonder what they could do if they actually took the time to refine their material.