White Denim, The Cult of “Peg,” and My Musical Continuum

OK, wow, my extreme, deep, immediate love for this video of the band White Denim playing a cover of the Steely Dan song “Peg” puts me right at the center of a Venn diagram that I previously wouldn’t have ever considered I’d need to talk about. Where do I even start to connect the dots?

WHITE DENIM

I’ve written a bit before about how during the bulk of my 20s when I wasn’t, for various reasons, making that much of my own music, I compensated for that lack by listening to and exploring a ton of other artists’ stuff—mostly new, mostly “indie.” I wrote about the music I was hearing and the concerts I was attending a lot on my old blog and at some point parlayed that into a brief stint reviewing albums and live shows for Daytrotter.

I am a terrible, terrible journalistic writer—I have no head for, like, narrative or facts, just wild associations and strongly voiced opinions—so this was really mostly a way for me to try to get my writing in front of more eyeballs and to maybe get into some shows I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. (For a stretch of time when I was single in my late 20s, I used a similar, in-through-the-side-door approach to look for tickets to sold-out or expensive shows on Craigslist—instead of checking the for-sale section, I would comb through the M4F dating sections, looking for guys who had optimistically bought two tickets and turned out not to have found anyone else who wanted to go to the show with them. I went to a handful of concerts and even one opera, for free, that way.) Anyway, one of the best events I attended while I was writing for Daytrotter was the two or three day stretch of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival when it was still being booked solely at Schubas.

My editor put my name on the guest list and I did my due diligence in the days leading up to the festival, trying to listen to as many of the new-to-me bands as I could, so I could at least feign some sort of awareness of these acts before I started attempting to evaluate what they were doing live. I was introduced to so much incredible music in that short stretch of time: Baby Teeth, White Rabbits, Illinois, the Redwalls, Bon Iver (!), and White Denim.

I believe you can still read some of my original write-ups of this festival via the sidebar of my old blog (in the event that the URLs are still even active), and I could of course go on at length about my memories of all this. 2008 doesn’t feel that long ago to me, yet I know it sorta is at this point.

Anyway, I pretty instantly fell in love with White Denim, both thanks to their chaotic, frenetic EP Let’s Talk About It and subsequently their funny, ferocious live set.

white denim at schubas 2008

Side note on funny bands—god bless ’em. I will always have a soft spot for a funny band. Not like a ha-ha-funny jokey novelty band, but a band full of performers who have a sense of humor about themselves, life, and the whole endeavor of being in a rock band. This is what initially drew me to Baby Teeth, and I’ve always held that Dan Bejar/Destroyer is WAY funnier than anyone gives him credit for being. It’s a rare, underappreciated skill.

Because of the way that I grew up around musicians, I’ve always been pretty fearless about marching up to them after shows to at least say “good set,” no matter how nervous or excited I might be about it on the inside. Musician to musician, that’s just what you do, even though of course these random bands would have no idea that I played and sang too (especially in those days when I was actively doing neither). But to me, at some level it was a participation in the wider project of honoring music itself, of paying obeisance to the greater spirit of the thing that we were all, ultimately, in service to. I can’t remember anymore which of the guys from White Denim I happened to run into that night, while the club was still, frankly, kinda empty, but I raved “GREAT SET!” emphatically at him in passing, trying not to seem awkward or pushy while still conveying my sincere enthusiasm. He responded, “yeah, I could see you grinnin’ out there!” which made me feel like a total Band-Aid in the best way possible. It was a perfectly heart-swelling Almost Famous moment of the purest reciprocity one could hope for in that specific environment.

best of 2008 mix

At the end of that year, I put “Mess Your Hair Up” on my Best of 2008 mix, citing its “itchy post-punk pleasure that surprises and delights me every moment that it doesn’t just completely fall apart.” (Dear Lord, save me from the acute pain of reading through my own archives.) As I recall, it was kind of hard to find their subsequent full-length releases, and since this was in that weird window of time when artists weren’t required to have quite as strong a presence on social media, I kind of lost track of them for a while, though I did finally hunt down a digital copy of their album Exposion.

Just before my current boyfriend and I started officially dating, I made him a mix CD with “Migration Wind” on it, and I was thrilled when he told me that it was one of his favorite tracks on there, especially since that song seemed like such a departure from what I’d loved about the EP, and in some ways, an even bolder stylistic choice for the band. The band was confident enough in itself to say, “yep, we’re going to hit you with some Doobie Brothers-level AM radio gold right now.” Since I’d become sort of ashamed of my true tastes and preferences, and was in the process of easing myself out of a phase of chronically attempting to present myself as somehow cooler or into more edgy art than I actually was, this felt like an extremely, attractively radical stance.

And, that was it for a while. I clung to that small batch of songs and stopped tracking new music as avidly while I got back into making more of my own.

white denim corsicana lemonade

Until, I guess, late 2013 when my boyfriend told me about this great new song that he’d heard on the radio, which the DJ announced was by White Denim, the same band, he realized, that had done that song “Migration Wind.” I got super excited when I realized the band was still together, and got even more excited when I finally heard “Pretty Green,” the first single off their album Corsicana Lemonade.

They’d apparently gone even further down the choogle hole in the intervening years and had reemerged as this incredibly tight, incredibly skilled yet still incredibly fun and funny band, with James Petralli ultimately becoming the most charismatic frontman I’d heard in ages.

The album has not, I think, left my iPhone in the last two and a half years. It’s become one of the rare albums that I don’t have to be in a specific mood to listen to. It’s not bound to a season or a state of mind, the way that, say, The National’s Alligator and The Clientele’s Strange Geometry will always feel like wintertime albums to me, or Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and Duncan Sheik’s Humming are usually my go-tos in early spring. It just makes me happy whenever I hear it. The musicianship is impeccable, each song is killer, and there’s absolutely no dead weight. Pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to an album these days is if it’s something I would actively rather listen to straight through instead of just putting a playlist on shuffle.

Part of the reason I love that album and love them as a band so much is that their goodness is legible to me. By which I mean, I love what they do because I respect what they’re doing because I understand the mechanics by which they’re doing it. I hear these tricky guitar lines and hooky melodies and propulsive song structures and recognize the perfectly balanced combination of chops and smarts, and it feels relatable to me. Like, I recognize how good they are because I recognize that their skills are in line with what I also aim to do musically. It’s just that they’re a couple notches away as far as how deeply and thoroughly they’ve been able to accomplish this. I say this neither to be self-aggrandizing nor self-deprecating; I’m just saying I recognize the continuum they’re on because in some ways it’s the same one that I’m on. Like, for as much as I love and respect, say, Iggy Pop, I have no access to the continuum he’s on. I recognize his genius, but I don’t relate to it, as such. It doesn’t feel “close” to what I know how to do musically.

iggy pop chicag theater marquee

But anyway, the closeness I feel to White Denim’s music also feels something like having bet on the right horse. Having so embraced their early stuff, and then coming back around after a bit of a gap in time to see their subsequent progress and expanded prowess feels like seeing the compound interest in my 401k starting to accrue. Like, I made a good decision by being at the right place at the right time, having a bit of taste and a bit of luck, and now it’s paying off. Lots of the bands I first saw at that Tomorrow Never Knows festival have since split up or disappeared or become uninteresting to me for whatever reason, so it just feels really satisfying to know that White Denim are not only still around but are also at the top of their game. I freaked out when I realized that they were going to be releasing a new album this spring, Stiff, and to a certain degree, I feel like it even has surpassed what they achieved with Corsicana Lemonade. It’s more soulful and more confident in ways that I’m still getting to know, but impossible not to be instantly moved and excited by.

STEELY DAN

My love for Steely Dan, then, is both incredibly prosaic and incredibly specific. It’s prosaic in the sense that they’re hugely famous and successful; their talent is obvious and unsurprising. That I enjoy their music so much is in no way special or unique. But, my window onto their work, specifically Aja, feels really bound to that mode of online music criticism that I was steeped in from about 2004 to 2009.

steely dan aja

As I started consuming more of that kind of writing on Pitchfork and Stereogum and a variety of music blogs, it was impossible to ignore many of these (mostly dude) writers’ attitudes toward Steely Dan. The attitude was simultaneously reverent, in-jokey, holier-than-thou, and deeply nerdy. I mean, the very nature of the band itself basically invites that kind of conflicted response, but for a time, loving Steely Dan in a very specifically bloggy way felt very secret-handshakey. And, more than anything else, it really revolved around the cult of “Peg.”

Which was really the cult of that guitar solo, which was really the cult of the knowledge of what a notorious industry legend had arisen around that guitar solo, which was really the cult of having your cake and eating it too—being able to deeply enjoy a thing at the same time you could get WAY insider-baseball about its technical details and other trivia. I mean, I’ve watched and linked to this video I don’t know how many times; I’ve read the Don Breithaupt book. All this behind-the-scenes info genuinely satisfies the part of me that always longs to know the more technical aspects of how any given piece of art gets made.

But, as I said above, and as I’ve written about in other posts here, that period of music consumption, while extremely fun and informative and fulfilling in many ways, was also pretty deeply marked by shame for me.

I was ashamed that I no longer felt like a real musician. I was ashamed that though I’d auditioned for a handful of bands after moving to Chicago, none of them seemed to want me to sing with them. I was ashamed that those rejections led me to rack up a chunk of credit card debt as I shelled out money I didn’t really have for a series of classes and lessons I couldn’t really afford because I couldn’t otherwise figure out how to be actively involved in making music on a semi-regular basis.

I was ashamed of my self-described “barfy” taste in popular music. (Guys, I own several Dave Matthews Band CDs. My justification for liking them because I respected their musicianship always reminds me of that Patton Oswalt bit about Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required being “pretty fuckin’ dark!” [Even though, let me not hesitate to remind everyone, I love Phil Collins.]) I was ashamed of the way that not only did I not know anything about cool current music, I also didn’t know anything about the reference points these reviewers had to cool music of the recent past, so I, filled with the shame of my ignorance, rushed to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Pixies, Pavement, The Smiths, and a bunch of others. (Real talk now, OK? I hate Pixies, Pavement, and The Smiths. I mean, sure, there’s a handful of their songs that I genuinely enjoy, and I get why they’re popular and beloved. They’re just mostly not for me, and it was starting to get exhausting to pretend otherwise.)

And so, I tried to navigate this new world of music nerdery, which seemed like it should have been similar to the way I grew up loving and learning about music from my dad and his fellow musician friends. But instead, it just made me feel like I had to abdicate anything I actually knew or liked from those first two decades of my life because it didn’t fit the mode of discourse that was deemed acceptable. Thus, Steely Dan felt extremely confusing to me. Like, here was this band that I could recognize as being “good” on a continuum that I inherently understood (jazz chords! literate lyrics!) that was also somehow acceptable under the terms of this rockist worldview I was straining myself to adopt.

So, I think I dove into proclaiming my love for Steely Dan as something of a talisman to protect myself against any hypothetical, imaginary charges that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I didn’t belong at the cool kids’ table. It was like I’d found a wormhole that allowed me to slip into this other dimension that I’d been trying to get myself into with varying degrees of prior success. But, I don’t think I really even wanted to be at the cool kids’ table because I actually cared about being cool; it was just the only space I could see at the time that felt like it connected to my passion for music. It was less that I wanted to be cool for the sake of being cool; I mostly just wanted to feel like I had the permission to openly express my tastes, to have a legitimated platform for spouting off about the stuff that I so deeply cared about. Which was music. Appreciating it, getting inside of it, living with it, connecting to grace through it.

That being said, none of that at all diminishes how much I do genuinely love Aja! I remember, when I first started really getting into it, the brown line stop at Rockwell nearest my apartment was closed for construction, so I had an extra seven-to-nine-minute walk to the next one at Western on my way to work in the morning, which got me through “Black Cow” and a chunk of the title track. I can remember standing at the Western station waiting for the train to pull in and just totally nerding out on that ending freakout of “Aja.” And then, once I was eventually on the train, by the time we were pulling into Belmont, I was usually toward the middle or end of “Peg,” just inwardly losing my shit over, of all things, the elegance of Rick Marotta’s ride cymbal work as the song plays and fades out.

I love the album’s elegantly knowing cynicism the way I love the hyper-intelligent, intricately wrought, stylish nihilism of Kubrick’s films. Any music that so instantly and intensely conveys that level of louche exasperation with, you know, the business of being alive at the same time that it revels in the exactitude of its own artifice is just infinitely OK by me.

My friend Ben and I will still occasionally text each other if we’re out and about and happen to hear “Deacon Blues” playing on the sound system of a restaurant or store. It’s one of those friendship shorthands that has long since lost its original reference point but still remains an active, potent way of conveying “I love you and I’m thinking about you.” I hope to eventually have a chance to see Steely Dan in concert before they stop touring so I can add them to my list of beloved classic artists I can say I’ve seen perform live at least once. I will sometimes say “they never knew it went down! They never knew it,” a la Chuck Rainey, when I feel like I’m getting away with a bit of benign mischief.

My boyfriend and I will go through phases of listening to Steely Dan’s greatest hits CD Showbiz Kids every once in a while, and I have a handful of their other proper albums in my collection, but honestly nothing of theirs has ever captured my brain and heart and ears the way that Aja did that spring a decade ago. So I just allow myself to be open to loving “Peg” whenever I hear it, which is fairly often given its massive, continued popular success (as well as its prominence as a five-starred song in my iTunes library), hoping in some indefinable way that the music’s own paradoxes will give me the courage to stand firm in my own.

THE COVER

“Holy shit!! The harmonies aren’t really all the way there (you can’t step to McDonald), but White Denim just did a super, super, super respectable job covering ‘Peg.’ Bold move, guys!!!”

This is what I e-mailed my boyfriend, with the link to the YouTube video, immediately after I saw the White Denim Facebook fan page mention that it had been posted. This was the only way that my brain could manage, in the heat of the moment, with the implied weight of everything I’ve been discussing above, to convey my excitement about what had just unfolded in front of me like some kind of hyper-personalized cosmic gift.

pet theories at schubas 121214

In 2013 and 2014, my band participated in a year-end holiday fundraiser event (at Schubas, appropriately enough) called Covers for Cover. The concept is that bands play cover songs to raise money for various shelters in the area (ie, for cover). The first year we played all animal-themed songs (to connect with our band’s name, Pet Theories) and the second year we did a set as The Police.

None of us are the types of musicians who would insist on getting these covers too “right” in the sense of note-for-note accuracy or anything like that. As long as the song was mostly recognizable, we felt comfortable adapting the arrangements so that they were more “us.” Not quite as far afield as something like a punk band doing a cover of “The Rainbow Connection,” but also not, y’know, at the level of The Fab Faux or one of those bands that specifically exists in order to present itself as as close to the real deal as you’re gonna get.

Anyway, my whole point is that I’ve had a little experience recently in learning to play cover songs, so I can appreciate the thought process that must have gone into White Denim deciding they were gonna bust out a cover of “Peg.” There’s this delicate nexus of “shit, can we pull this off?” / “what’s something recognizable but not too overdone?” / “what’s something that sounds a bit like us without being too obvious as a reference point?” / “what’s a song we love enough to deconstruct that we won’t subsequently ruin for ourselves through repetition?” The fact that any band would spit “Peg” out at the end of this chain of questioning is so incredibly ballsy that, truly, the only proper response is to laugh with utterly delighted incredulity the way that you can hear Petralli doing just before the camera cuts away to commercial. It’s the laugh of, “yep, we really did just do that; can you believe it? Wasn’t it absurd? And wasn’t it awesome?”

Because, playing a cover of “Peg” is in no way, of course, just playing a cover of “Peg.” It’s referencing all that deep music-nerd knowledge of Steely Dan as these legendarily exacting players. It’s having the chops to actually pull it off. It’s gesturing toward the music people who will get the reference and understand the complexity of the choice and be duly surprised and impressed by it. It’s having a solid enough identity as a band that the song comes off as affectionate rather than ironic. It’s operating at a level of success where all these factors add up to, like, just a fun thing to try to do if you happen to be touring behind a new album anyway.

And, holy crap, it works! I mean, for me, given all of the above, it so works.

I have STRONG feelings about Petralli honestly being one of the best rock vocalists working right now. On White Denim’s proper recordings, he simultaneously manages to have great intonation and soulfulness while pushing the emotional content of his singing beyond just, I dunno, the standard romantic angst or exhaustingly hip self-regard. One of my favorite moments of any rock song in recent memory is toward the middle of “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles)” on Corsicana Lemonade where he laughs a little bit at the end of a phrase and then his articulation changes because you can actually hear him still smiling on the other end of the microphone. Like, the honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, and generosity of allowing that take to stay on the track just astounds me.

You definitely get some of that quality in this live version of “Peg” too. I mean, I have similarly strong feelings about the glorious sneering irony of Donald Fagen’s vocals on the original (if you don’t believe in the singularity of Fagen’s voice, just listen to David Palmer’s lamely vanilla singing on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and tell me he in any way advances the band’s sensibility), and it’s a testament to his musical intelligence that Petralli manages not to make me miss Fagen at all, through either imitation or by somehow misguidedly trying to outdo him.

My dad was a legendarily excitable guy. People used to dryly poke fun at him, “gee, Terry, don’t you ever get excited about anything?” when he’d be shouting and getting red in the face about some new thing that had caught his fancy. I’ve definitely inherited this tendency and often find myself trying to temper my enthusiasm, assuming that, I dunno, if everything is so exciting then maybe nothing is? But, I don’t know how much I actually believe that. The obsessive excitement itself may be fleeting, but to me, it always points to a richer story, with far deeper roots, in a specific context, that’s trying to be told. Thanks for sitting with me while I got excited enough to tell this one.

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