Brooklyn-via-Missouri-based six piece White Rabbits are a little over halfway through their North American tour–and it shows. At this point in their travels, they are a well-oiled machine that minces few words before, during, or after their hour-long set in L.A. on Tuesday night. They enhance the lush appointments of the El Rey with a warm and choppy brand of indie rock, delivered with urgency, paced with maturity.
Hollowbody guitars begin swirling into runaway feedback spread over Phillistine tom tom assaults before the curtain even rolls back–themes that rarely let up during the next 60 minutes. Instead, they bloom, mutate, and redouble even louder as White Rabbits insist upon a powerful and earnest declaration of who they are.
You’ve laid a pretty intent ear on White Rabbits’ May 2009 release It’s Frightening, so you’re curious to see how the band handles layered arrangements like “Midnight and I” in a live context. Do they pull it off? Absolutely! What’s the secret? Matthew Clark and Alex Even on percussion and, well, noise, respectively. Clark is the lanky, ball-of-energy who you see behind the tom kit, mostly. As the show unfolds, you discover that he is the caveman savant behind White Rabbit’s signature thud. His work is front and center on most Rabbits songs, including the drummy single “Percussion Gun.” You enjoy this more muscular interpretation of the “multi-instrumentalist” that has almost become a given in many of the bands that share the scenester space with White Rabbits.
If Clark is the July 4th fireworks, Even is the fog that rolls in halfway through the display, obscuring it and keeping it from becoming too straight-ahead, too patriotic. You can’t help but compare his knack for massaging effects to that of art rock’s gold standard in texture: Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien (Radiohead shares a label with Rabbtis, coincidentally). Like O’Brien, Even is able to coax outer space from his Epiphone Casino with a small army of persuasive devices: murky delay, eBow sustains, analog synth pads, and good old fashioned Fender amplifier reverb. His head looks as if it’s about to pop off as he shadows Clark’s movements (which should be familiar to anyone who has ever geeked out really hard to their favorite song in the privacy of their bedroom). At one point, you think you catch Even plinking strings behind the guitar’s bridge to evoke a horror movie spider tinkle that supplements frontman Stephen Patterson’s darkish lyrical content with a sinister sort of appropriateness.
As for Patterson, his version of very fearless leader to very fearless band is exactly right. He plays his upright piano with a drummer’s precision, sometimes squirming to wrap his legs around it at the pinnacle of livelier songs. His voice sounds good–ragged and desperate albeit it slightly strained at points. You appreciate the imperfection, though, because it pulls White Rabbits’ ruthless sense of rhythm off of its high horse. Patterson is a hybrid: one part singer, one part pianist, zero parts talker. But you don’t really mind the lack of banter between songs because you’re too busy 1) wondering if Patterson’s HMO will cover the carpal tunnel that just has to accompany playing that hard and 2) admiring the Rabbits’ flawless, effects-laden transitions (was that a dub machine you heard?) from one tune to the next.
The Beatles influence is heavy and you love it. If the lilting vocal harmonies between Patterson and guitarist/singer Greg Roberts on “Rudie Fails” or “Right Where They Left” don’t tip you off, bassist Brian Bettancort’s left-handed Hofner just might. Or maybe it’s drummer Jamie Levinson’s unpretentious backbeats. No matter how you arrive at the comparison, White Rabbits echo the pop sensibility of that highest of holy bands with tact and restraint, unlike some of the more conspicuous derivatives that cropped up in the 90’s.
But there’s something else echoed in White Rabbits, something equally tuneful but modern. Right as you’re forming the thought, your jaw drops because Britt Daniel materializes out of nowhere to help close the night with a rendition of “We All Shine On.” You realize that the other ingredient in White Rabbits’ sound is, of course, Spoon.
White Rabbits are absolutely their own band. White Rabbits also owe a sizable slice of their sound and success to the support of Spoon frontman, It’s Frightening producer, and all around indie golden boy Britt Daniel. Daniel’s Spoon (in one sentence) helped set the bar for garage rock/pop by stripping it down it’s rhythmic roots, severing ties with the Wall of Sound, and fathering the brand of deconstructed rock & roll that White Rabbits seem poised to inherit. Still, you don’t expect the man to actually show up on stage, especially one so far from his Portland digs. Daniel strides over to Clark’s corner and wrestles with a malfunctioning guitar before muting it and applying his Van Morrison-like vocal grit to his pet project’s final encore. You smile a bit as you realize that you’ve hit hot and grainy pay dirt on what is otherwise a chilly Monday night in the heart of Los Angeles.