White Whale WWI

[Merge; 2006]

Styles: indie rock, indie pop, prog-pop
Others: The Arcade Fire, Butterglory, The Get Up Kids

A Kansas-based indie supergroup of sorts, White Whale has a pedigree that's both a help and a hindrance to their prospects in the current era of underground rockers vying for prominence. Leader Matt Suggs made his name in the '90s with his jangly rock outfit Butterglory. At a time when Pavement and Guided by Voices were building enthusiastic followings with similar sounds, their records seemed to sadly slip under the radar, overshadowed the more raucous or intricate sounds of labelmates like Superchunk and Polvo. Following Suggs's foray into solo singer/songwriter territory, he's now hooked up with Rob Pope (The Get Up Kids, Reggie & the Full Effect), John Anderson, Zach Holland, and Dustin Kinsey (of The Higher Burning Fire) to forge a new identity both more muscular and more refined than any of their earlier projects.

And there's the rub - those who are expecting WWI to be a move back to the quirky breeziness of Butterglory or even the emo-leanings of The Get Up Kids won't necessarily find that. To be certain, there are elements of those earlier groups incorporated, but they are largely subsumed by a more aggressive and somewhat progressive rock quality. This is clear from the opening drumstick count-off that launches the sinewy and sinister come-on of "Nine Good Fingers" whose lyrical content openly wishes a more winning music combination for this endeavor. On it and throughout the rest of the album, Suggs voice verges closer to the emotional charge of The Get Up Kids than the fractured pop melodicism of his earlier efforts. When the backing chorus shouts "Let 'em find a new song," I get the feeling that this is a significant moment for these guys, and that they're pouring all their resources into this project.

Their dedication pays off. "What's an Ocean For?" soars like a gorgeous paean announcing that there is some meaning to this life that makes momentary losses come out in the wash. The almost subaquatic drum machine beat guiding the beginning of "Forgive the Forgiven" creates the impression that it will become the album's low point moodwise (which it probably is), but by the time it reaches the home stretch, it blossoms into a maelstrom of beautiful rock noise and ferocity. "O' William, O' Sarah" is the epic of the album, starting as an intense pop rock number before it segues into psych-echo jam and then a taut pseudo-electronic passage reminiscent of something off of Trans Am's Surrender to the Night, before it breaks apart. It's some pretty impressive ground to cover convincingly in under eight minutes.

Yet, there's an undeniable sense of humor here that shouldn't be ignored. This is a comeback album of sorts, but these are really guys who are in it to enjoy themselves as much as anything else. The jewel of WWI, "The Admiral," sways like a beefed-up sea chantey— its drunken swagger intoxicating in its undeniable melodramaticism. Although, for me, the most perversely pleasing moment is the inclusion of a song poem cover, "I Love Lovey Chinese Gal," where they precariously embrace the strangely Orientalist longing of the lyrics and Rodd Keith's hazy musical interpretation of that odd sentiment. This may be a big move for White Whale's members, but it's mostly just about playing music they love. It would take a bitter person to not love that.

1. Nine Good Fingers
2. O' William, O' Sarah
3. The Admiral
4. I Love Lovely Chinese Gal
5. What's an Ocean For?
6. We're Just Temporary Ma'am
7. Forgive the Forgiven
8. Fidget and Fudge
9. Yummyman Farewell
10. King's Indian
11. One Prayer

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