CAMBRIDGE — Few are likely to describe White Denim’s sound as sleek or single-minded. But as popular momentum builds behind its idiosyncratic spin on American rock music, the Austin quartet has carved off at least some of its rougher edges.
Last year’s confident and tuneful “Corsicana Lemonade” continued efforts made on 2011 breakthrough release “D” to strip back some of the sprawling compositional shapes, and sometimes-punkish thrash, found within its earlier work. Even if the resulting sonic mélange — landing somewhere on the continuum between curiously tart Southern rock and uncommonly sun-baked indie fare, squinting in wafts of day-tripper haziness — is more accessible to the uninitiated, its personality is no less distinct.
The latest developments in White Denim’s evolving sound were cued by its experiences opening for Wilco on a theater tour following the release of “D.” The larger venues prompted some artistic adjustments, the group found.
“We were playing so many notes,” frontman James Petralli says in a phone call from home, “and all of that space just swallowed up the notes we were trying to play. It just led to us trying to simplify the parts a little more. Maybe that is a little more marketable approach, but we were just listening to the rooms we were playing in and realizing we had an opportunity to maybe play on a larger stage.”
That last comment works both literally and figuratively, of course. But without the back story, listeners aren’t likely to notice an obvious chart grab with “Corsicana Lemonade.”
“There are a couple points on the record where I think we were trying to make something for the radio,” Petralli adds, “but I don't think any of us has an idea of what's on the radio right now. Maybe we were making songs for the radio in 1972.”
Though White Denim LPs tend to play as distinct statements, the band has also built a separate reputation as a hot live band. Petralli and drummer Josh Block both say “Corsicana Lemonade” was built from scratch as a roster of songs meant to translate easily to the stage.
“I think the misperception is that we were just bringing the recording closer to the live show, but we kind of brought the two closer together,” Block says, in a separate phone call.
There’s less evidence on the new album of a hopscotching songwriting style critics have seen as “schizophrenic,” Petralli asserts. Still, unexpected time and tempo shifts ripple throughout, creating effects ranging from anxious to celebratory. “New Blue Feeling” is intensely melodic, while “Distant Relative Salute” wraps an anthemic rock chorus around verses played in rapidly churning 6/8 meter. The title track arrives on a bed of skittering beats and a circling riff, and never pauses for breath.
Petralli, Block, and bassist Steve Terebecki formed White Denim in 2005, later welcoming second guitarist Austin Jenkins. “D” was its first album with a label on board from the get-go, offering artistic notes and seeking a return on investment from the result.
At the time of that release, band members were open about the pressures surrounding the preceding sessions. "The actual music-making, the recording, was never laborious. It was trying to deliver something that was viewed as a product. We didn’t have representation at the time, we didn’t have a business translator or whatever, so we took all the label criticism really personally,” Petralli recalls now.
There was a different energy surrounding the new effort. The band worked with outside producers for the first time, getting the sessions started at Wilco’s studio The Loft under the guidance of Jeff Tweedy. (Tweedy has two producer credits on the final record, and mixed all of it.) Austin-based producer Jim Vollentine helmed the rest of the recording.
Tweedy’s easygoing style apparently offered a direct contrast with the vibe of some past White Denim studio experiences. “The four of us together in the studio with no supervision becomes a really perfectionist kind of thing,” Petralli says. And the label was happy too. “It was a completely different experience all-around. It was fun for us,” Petralli adds, “and easy for them to get behind. They felt that we were in good hands.”
White Denim plays the Sinclair Tuesday and Wednesday night. The only other two-night engagement on its current tour is at estimable West Hollywood club the Troubadour. The second night in Cambridge is part of growing evidence the band is on a hard-earned upswing. (It was in-state last year for a courtyard set at Wilco’s Solid Sound festival in North Adams.) “The two-night run is a big statement. I’m still wondering how that's going to go. It’s kind of an experiment,” Petralli says. “We’ve been playing for eight years. Clubs we’ve played eight times are finally full now.”
As White Denim works its way through typical challenges that come with more success — adapting to larger venues and more press attention, with more at stake — its stylistic evolution reflects a band still determined to be different, or at the very least consistently interesting.
Block says the band’s latest work continues to offer him fresh challenges behind the drums.
“I don’t mean to downplay the almost athletic idea of playing in multiple time signatures and a lot of notes,” he says, “because that’s another kind of challenge. But it’s difficult as well to be able to play less notes. It’s just as entertaining to learn how to play with space as it is to learn to play with time.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.