White Rabbits, Crocodiles, The Subjects Friday, June 26, 2009 The Bluebird Better Than: Speeding down a deserted highway on a summer night.
You get my bias up front for White Rabbits. These are hometown boys to me, formed in Columbia, Missouri, where I learned to love music. They'd already left for Brooklyn by the time I found them, but I'll never forget their triumphant return to mid-Missouri. September 11, 2007, the night Greg Roberts stepped up to a stage-left mike in a packed bar at the edge of downtown and said "hellowearewhiterabbits."
They'd already unleashed "Kid On My Shoulders" before the words left his lips, and I don't think I took a breath in the next hour. They had two drum sets back then and their set was absolutely primal, the apocalyptic calypso they used to love careening into the wooden rafters. So I spent a lot of time during Friday's show at the Bluebird thinking about how they've changed in the last year and a half.
I understand we're talking about a relatively short period of time, but the world of music moves at warp speed here in the Aughts. Guitarist Alex Even used to have the band's prettiest face, and maybe he was just sick, but he looked worn in Denver, wearing stubble, ripped and faded flannel and a darkness around his eyes. Roberts is leaner. Drummer Jamie Levinson has even less hair than he used to. Bassist Adam Russel has been replaced by Brian Betancourt, for this tour at least.
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White Rabbits used to be a bunch of youths with breathtaking momentum, a few good world-music tricks and a harness on the sort of paranoia that made Radiohead famous. Now they're a single-minded monster, a rock and roll band with the confidence to play a slow song once in a while and the savvy to never ever give themselves a label. Singer and pianist Stephen Patterson has assumed front-man duties when before he split time with Roberts. The other drummer, Matt Clark, plays standing, and it's just a floor tom and a snare. He's also got the occasional guitar part these days. Their new songs are more spaced out, simpler. They bear the imprint of the album's producer, Spoon's Britt Daniel, and The Walkmen, with whom White Rabbits share a practice space. For devotees of the debut, Fort Nightly, the new album, It's Frightening, was a bit of a letdown. Some drunk guy standing next to me at the show asked what I was writing during "Company I Keep."
"Because you should say it sucks," he says. I know where he's coming from. That song is downright domestic compared with the first album, and I miss the frenetic pace just as much as he does. They even played the old stuff slower on Friday. But I think he's wrong that the song sucks.
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For as much as I love Fort Nightly, I don't listen to it all that much anymore. Patterson said in an interview with our sister paper in New York that he thought people "had their fill" of that calypso/ska thing in 2008, and credit is due to the band for having the awareness to mostly ditch all that for It's Frightening. And it's not like every song on the album is slow - the single "Percussion Gun" is as heart-pounding as anything they've ever written. As an album, It's Frightening is more cohesive and will prove more durable than Fort Nightly, even if it is treading familiar rock ground.
OK, so White Rabbits are different in a lot of ways. But they're still the same band that put on the most enjoyable show I've ever seen a year and a half ago. They still got through an hour-long set in what felt like twenty minutes on Friday. They still cut right into the pit of your stomach and make you want to greet the world's entropy with fists and a smirk. They still put you on the balls of your feet. They move like animals, heads bowed, all sinew and curved spine. Patterson raises his left leg, the one facing the audience. His piano bench can barely contain him as he snarls into the microphone. His pounding notes jangle against the straining strings.
The live show isn't quite as much of a jolt as it once was; the fire isn't burning quite as hot, but they're no has-beens. They close the main set with "Percussion Gun," and by the end everyone's breathing smoke. And before the final wailing drum notes have faded, Patterson grabs the mic and says, "thankyouwearewhiterabbits."
Critic's Notebook Personal Bias: See above. Random Detail: White Rabbits love this city. Levinson complimented us after the show and Betancourt twittered his approval a day later. By The Way: "Rudie Fails," is not just an awesome after-the-crash play on The Clash's "Rudie Can't Fail," it's also the best song White Rabbits have ever written. Go listen to it right now on their myspace, along with the rest of It's Frightening.