hite Whale is a new, Kansas-based five-piece comprised of members from several now-defunct indie bands, including Butterglory, The Get-Up Kids, and Thee Higher Burning Fire. They have formed to remind you of everything in indie rock circa 2006 that you are trying to forget. Facelessly competent, they make self-important, self-consciously literate guitar rock past its sell-by date via a simple recipe: mix together some late-period Death Cab for Cutie, some OK Computer-era Radiohead, and add in a few Doves and some Decemberists.
In their defense, White Whale does have a healthy appreciation for sonic grandeur and an ear for wrapping tart chord progressions in evocative sounds—wintry synth washes, backing horns, toy-box drum programming. But a perusal of the album’s eleven windy, rheumy tracks will make you yearn for the days when the indie boys got outside more often (or at least pretended they did) instead of sitting indoors with a volume of eighteenth-century verse. WWI is full of indie flotsam: an archly clever and sexless lead persona, Beatle-esque semi-distorted guitar chords billowing over booming grand piano, stairstep chord progressions.
Thankfully, lead singer Matt Suggs (of Matt Suggs) adopts more of a drowsy Angloid affect than an actual English accent—think Stephen Malkmus’s spoiled-prince during Pavement’s dying days—singing lyrics that veer from the effectively ominous (“You decided to break the law / So you broke it and broke it and broke it until she didn’t move”) to the impossibly precious (“O how we fidget and fudge”). He even shows a knack for convoluted narratives on “We’re Just Temporary Ma’am” and “The Admiral,” but the whole extravagantly doomy persona and vibe feels lifted from a better band, as though Suggs’ was doing an imitation of Morrissey’s fitfully perturbed younger cousin.
Some moments are egregiously derivative: the chorus to “What’s an Ocean For?” is either a direct lift from the Doves’s first album or Coldplay’s second, and “Forgive the Forgiven” steals the instantly recognizable drum sound from Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” The fade out to “Fidget and Fudge” includes an extended jam with soft-focus guitar noodling, a la Built to Spill. These guys have figured out the puzzle pieces of an indie song—buzzing synth here, off-kilter guitar line here, drum fill over there—but they haven’t figured out how to animate their creations with any sort of personality.
It’s unfair to single out one record, and a debut at that, but WWI reminds once again that the indie silo is becoming impossibly stuffy—a closed society too certain of exactly what it likes and one that has become extremely adept at reproducing it for others. As long as the culture remains as painfully insular, this shit will eventually wilt and die, or cartwheel off into the Narnia of solipsism. White Whale themselves have done nothing wrong, and WWI is a decent album. But does indie rock have to sound like this?