Texas rockers White Denim faced a crossroads about a year ago when guitarist Austin Jenkins and co-founding drummer Josh Block left to hitch their wagon to soul discovery Leon Bridges after producing his debut.

That cut White Denim in half, leaving singer/guitarist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki to ponder the future of their decade-old Austin band.

“We weren’t very excited about that,” Petralli, 34, says of his former bandmates’ defection to Bridges’ group. “But they really hit a home run with that kid.” Luckily, Petralli was ready to release a solo album under the name Bop English. He supported it on a European tour with Terebecki and recruits Jonathan Horne on guitar and Jeffrey Olson on drums, and that “road audition,” Petralli says, led to White Denim’s new lineup.

“This is the only thing that Steve and I have done for 10 years,” Petralli says from an Oregon tour stop. “This is our livelihood. So we were going to make a White Denim record either way, but it’s fortunate that it turned out OK.”

Better than OK—the new quartet’s March release, Stiff, retains White Denim’s spirit and energy, with fresh spontaneity. The eclectic album bristles with slippery virtuosity as well as cheeky confidence (reflected in cover art that depicts cactuses stuffed into the waistband of a woman’s panties).

“We had to take a swing, man,” Petralli says. “I had a few months there where I really felt like my back was against the wall, so to speak, like ‘What am I going to do? I don’t want to go back to driving a truck.’ ”

The prolific singer/guitarist ended up back in another driver’s seat, writing about 70 percent of the new material, assisted by Terebecki. “Part of the conversation that we had about whether or not we were going to continue was doing a lot of self-referencing,” Petralli says, and that meant recalling their main influences on early White Denim records. “They were really fun to make and didn’t have the same pressures in life that we had now. So we went back to [Jimi] Hendrix, Little Richard, basically all the good stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. Grand Funk Railroad and the Grateful Dead, Funkadelic, all that stuff we connected over.”

White Denim covers that kind of range, drawing from classic rock and R&B, jam-rock and prog-rock, while its newcomers add experience in jazz and—for guitarist Horne—the free improvisation/noise scene. “White Denim’s always been a player’s band,” Petralli says. “It seems natural and fun, and keeps us engaged to approach a lot of styles.”

Stiff shifts from the cascading turbo-boogie of “Had 2 Know (Personal)” to the James Brown-meets-Zeppelin funk of “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)” to the tippy-toe psychedelia of “(I’m the One) Big Big Fun,” iced with ghostly backup vocals and go-go bells muffled with towels.

“I tend to like hazy sounds in production, like tape echo and muted things,” Petralli says. At the same time, producer/instrumentalist Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne) favored a stripped-down style where the group played live in the studio, stuck with first or second vocal takes and avoided overdubs. “Normally, we’re overdub-crazy,” Petralli says, noting they recorded to 16-track tape. “It was very much like what would have been made in 1970.”

His vocals stand out under that direct approach, swinging from a giddy growl on rocking tracks to a soulful falsetto on “Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love),” where he croons the playfully trite lyric “You don’t have to be a movie star. In fact, I want you just the way you are.”

“Some of those lines I might as well be singing about ice cream,” Petralli says, noting that Johns wanted to include that track on the album. “It just kind of freed us up to be super silly in a way, definitely not taking it as seriously, trying not to totally become Steely Dan.”

Now the reborn band is finding its groove on tour, hitting the Sinclair on April 22. “There’s definitely some discovery taking place every night,” Petralli says. “We should be hot by the time we make it to you.”


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