“Ice cream chords” is a derisive musician’s term for cheesy, predictable changes. In the age of autotune, Microsoft Songsmith and indie rock, ice cream chords have come to reflect a rare level of craft. On his fourteenth album, streaming at Bandcamp, Ward White celebrates those and many more serious changes via various levels of subtly venomous humor, meta, and a classic anthemic sensibility.
At this point in his career, the songwriter who got his start around the turn of the century working the corners of what was then called alt-country has reached rarefied first-ballot hall-of-fame terrain typically reserved for people like David Bowie and Richard Thompson. It is not hype to say that White ranks with both: he can sing like the former if he feels like it, and like the latter can be a force of nature on the fretboard. But ultimately it’s tunesmithing that distinguishes him the most. He’s dabbled with glam, allusively macabre nonlinear art-rock (his Bob album topped the best-of-2013 list here) and new wave. Most recently White has been mining a jangly yet unpredictable three-minute song vein packed with triple entendres, literary references and frequent violence: Elvis Costello meets Warren Zevon out behind the Rat in Boston circa 1983.
This album is a slight change of pace, somewhat more lighthearted and new wave flavored: lyrically, it’s more of a Bond sci-fi weapon than a switchblade. The ravages of time are a recurrent theme. The opening number, Shorter is probably the only chorus-box guitar song ever to reference both 70s one-hit wonders Brewer & Shipley and the Police. Pulsing tightly along with White’s terse guitar and bass textures, Tyler Chester’s keys and Mark Stepro’s drums, it’s a slicker if equally aphoristic take on Tom Warnick’s Gravity Always Wins.
White can’t resist paying a visit to the Mr. Softee truck to kick off the more powerpop-flavored but similarly metaphorical Rumors: the guitar solo joke is too hilarious to spoil. With lingering tremolo guitar, airconditioned organ and a loping beat, DeSoto is not a reference to the proto-conquistador but an old Chrysler brand: violence and madness make their first appearances, quietly if not particularly efficiently.
Mezcal Moth – which has a cruelly funny spy story video on White’s homepage – is a return to skittishly strutting, cynically imagistic new wave with goofy late 60s/early 70s guitar effects. This is what happens when you eat zee bugs!
Spacy keys waft over ominously lingering tremolo guitar and gospel-tinged piano in the album’s title track, a slow, coldly imagistic anthem contemplating the perils of fame and selling out….among other things. The pace and the jokes pick up again with Like a Bridge, although the song also has the cruelest Vietnam War allusion ever committed to vinyl or its digital analogue.
“Ever get the sinking feeling your best years are behind you?” White asks in Born Again, one of his signature, meticulously detailed portraits of a real sicko. “That spattered pattern on the ceiling, that’s how they’re going to find you, you stayed too long.”
Horses is not the Patti Smith song but a subtly bossa-soul flavored original. “This inkblot Camelot is eating on me every day,” White muses and hits his fuzz pedal before continuing with an offhandedly sinister John Perkins-style deep state tale. The band pick up from a goofy Men at Work strut to lush Byrds jangle and back in Prominent Frogman: “You can bend me all the way to ten though my offer stands at nine,” White gnomically advises. There’s screaming subtext here, the question is what.
Signore is a seedy end-of-vacation scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog, White tossing off some unexpected flamenco phrasing amid the warpy synth, terse piano and wry guitar-sitar lines.
The funniest joke on the album is the guitar riffage that opens 50,000 Watts Ago, but it’s only of many in this subtly caustic middle-finger salute to mockingbird radio. “I didn’t earn this nametag just by doing what I’m told/You’ll never move that Trinitron until the black-and-whites have been sold,” White warns over a distantly ominous midtempo psych-pop backdrop on the album’s final cut. Slouch.
Several of these tracks could easily qualify for best song of 2022, as could this album as a whole. Stick around a couple of weeks for when the year-end lists hit the front page here, a little late, and find out where this lands.