Monday, June 26, 2017 at 7 a.m.
What makes a band an “American band”?
It seems like the poets at Grand Funk Railroad cracked the code back in 1973, when they sang, “We’re an American band / We’re comin’ to your town / We’ll help you party it down.”
American bands don’t exactly have a copyright on the subject of partying. When it comes to debauchery, our European cohorts often have us beat. But making the subject of their songs partying itself? That’s one of the defining characteristics of an American band.
It’s hard not to think about this while listening to White Reaper’s stellar new album. Hailing from Louisville, White Reaper are classic rock ‘n’ rollers. They’re not the kind of musicians who talk about their love for Can and obscuro synth pop in interviews because their record collections begin with Cheap Trick and end with Thin Lizzy. They play loud rock songs about girls and partying, songs that sound best when blaring out of a speeding car’s stereo.
And the name of their new album? The World’s Best American Band.
For most bands, calling yourself “The World’s Best American Band” would be a tongue-in-cheek declaration. White Reaper aren’t like most bands. Every song on The World’s Best American Band sounds like them making an argument for claiming that status.
To give you a sense of what era of rock music this band is most sweet on, the album’s opening track begins with piped-in crowd noise (like the kind you’d hear on Kiss Alive!) and ends with a school bell ringing (paging Alice Cooper). And then “Judy French,” one of the year’s best rock songs, roars to life with a guitar riff that sounds like the lovechild of Rush and Eddie Van Halen. You can just imagine the innumerable smoke seshs in bitchin’ vans this one song will inspire, to say nothing of all the air guitaring and air drumming it practically begs you to do as it plays out.
The rest of the record plays out like a feverish recreation of Dazed and Confused rock & roll. There probably won’t be another record released this year that sounds less of its time. Not a single note on The World’s Best American Band sounds like it could only have been made in 2017. You could teleport this record back to 1976 and songs like “Crystal Pistol” and “Eagle Beach” wouldn’t sound out of place on rock radio.
And yet there’s something intriguing about how timeless the album sounds. On paper, it should send like a total nostalgia trip, but it pulses and kicks with relevancy. A part of may be that it’s harkening back to sounds and a worldview that haven’t had much currency in underground music for a long time.
“Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s” has held sway in modern music for awhile – not many folks are consciously mining Molly Hatchet and other ’70s rockers for inspiration.
The tradition that White Reaper hails from comes from a time when epic riffs, muscle riffs, chasing skirts, and getting obliterated on cheap domestic beer was everything. An era of perfect stoned meathead music, when David Lee Roth still roamed the Earth with a full head of hair. Sometimes the underground would pay homage to this age of power pop and proto-buttrock: The Replacements would do Kiss covers, Weezer would shout out Ace Frehley in his songs, and Big Black would turn Cheap Trick’s “He’s A Whore” into a gnarled industrial shredfest. Hell, The Hold Steady would fashion an entire career out of strip-mining old Sprinsteen and Thin Lizzy albums for parts that they could weld together with their old Husker Du albums, creating a modern bar rock soundtrack for Craig Finn’s poetic narratives.
The difference between White Reaper and these other groups is their wholesale, non-ironic embrace of being an “American band.” They aren’t The Hold Steady – old school indie rockers placing quotation marks around old school rock & roll. There is zero sense of critical distance in their love and emulation of these kind of tunes, and it pays off in their music. It’s why songs like “The Stack” pack such a powerful punch: they’re not trying to impress you with their taste and their cleverness. It’s like they say in that song: they’re just trying to make music that girls will dance to. And what could be more American than that?
White Reaper is playing on Wednesday, June 28, at Valley Bar.