Review: White Rabbits – “Milk Famous”

The third album by the beloved indie band White Rabbits starts out deceptively analog, with five seconds of tape hiss and spontaneous, “you’re in the room with the band” background noise. It’s a deliberate fake out: more than any of the previous efforts by this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Missouri five-piece, it’s the most studio-manipulated sounding album they’ve made yet. Leadoff track “Heavy Metal,” which has been buzzing around the blogosphere for a while, paves the way for this approach: the song begins with a subtly funky post-punk groove, then inserts undulating, reversed-track psychedelic guitar – it’s like if “Another One Bites The Dust” wasn’t a flamboyant rock star, but a wispy Williamsburg hipster kid a bit shy to bust all his moves on the dancefloor.

“Heavy Metal” provides the template that pretty much sticks through all of Milk Famous: dissonance contrasted with hooks, dressed up with production ear candy. “Hold It To The Fire” begins with eerie, Sonic Youth-style feedback and tribal drums that wouldn’t be out of place on a Liars song, evolving into an unexpectedly Beatlesque vocal melody replete with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” effects. “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” similarly commences with an off-kilter rhythm that makes one want to dust off ye olde Gang of 4 references before lurching into a piano-driven power-pop groove recalling Squeeze or XTC. The repetitive motorik beat, insistent bass throb, and woozy textures on “Danny Come Inside,” meanwhile, suggest krautrock hopped up on digital muscle milk.

“Danny Come Inside” also reiterates White Rabbits’ longtime association with Spoon, both sonically and in terms of who helms their records. Rabbits frontman Stephen Patterson’s melodic, subtly defiant vocals – moving easily from insistent bark to questioning falsetto – recall similar qualities displayed by Spoon singer Britt Daniel. Not coincidentally, Daniel produced White Rabbits’ 2009 sophomore set, It’s Frightening; likewise, for Milk Famous, longtime Spoon collaborator Mike McCarthy sits in the producer chair. It’s not so much that White Rabbits is derivative, however, as much as they place similar values on tweaking expectations of what a pop-oriented indie band should sound like today. The “in-the-box” studio tricks here ultimately evoke another influence, though: recent material by Radiohead, which takes much of its inspiration from the fragmentary possibilities afforded by the latest music-making technology.

The emphasis on sound design doesn’t take away from White Rabbits’ distinctive commitment to songcraft, though; instead, it just sugars up the proceedings, compelling the listener to keep peeling away each song’s many layers and keep coming back for more.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

-Matt Diehl @iammattdiehl

Matt Diehl is the author of four books: his most recent is Drinking With Strangers, the memoir of Butch Walker, which Diehl co-authored and will be published by William Morrow in late October. Elsewhere, Diehl’s writing has appeared in the likes of Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, SPIN, W Magazine, and Interview, where he is Contributing Music Editor. He lives in Los Angeles, California.