White Reaper are incredible at surface level. Across their first two studio albums, the Louisville rockers have excelled at the hard-to-capture fusion of sincerity and humour. Their debut album is called ‘White Reaper Does It Again’. That, in itself, is brilliant. The 2017 follow-up, ‘The World’s Best American Band’, speaks for itself. It is almost an annoyance having to listen to the songs or albums because the titles are too good.
Thankfully their songs are good. Really good. With albums one and two, White Reaper positioned themselves as a digestible variation of a Bad Boy – the songs are greasy, slightly one-dimensional and not to be taken seriously in the slightest. The five-piece were like the rebound boyfriend you had in college that you knew you were better than, but kept going back to. Disclaimer: that may be a massive disservice to a band that are remarkable at churning out great songs at a great rate (one album every two years).
If the album titles are any indication of the side of White Reaper you are getting, then ‘You Deserve Love’ is the band at its most heartfelt. Album three is a step to a slightly more serious, if controlled, White Reaper. Here, the band have signed to Elektra Records – making this their major label debut. They take to the challenge with reassured confidence that the band who proclaimed themselves (ironically perhaps, although…) ‘the world’s best American band’ still exists, only this time with polish and a shower.
You can figure out, just by looking at the album titles, that ‘You Deserve Love’ is White Reaper’s coming-of-age album. The title alone (surface level, again) is a strong enough indication. The songs only further that belief. ‘Headwind’ is a clear example of the band expanding. It is a chunky introduction: heavy but melodic, it lures you in. The song is nowhere near as instantaneous as their previous two album openers, but with its twinkle keys laced upon the thick guitars, you will be smiling from the off.
The first track continues one of White Reaper’s longest tropes: distinguishable lyrics. Denim-rocking, head-shaven vocalist Tony Esposito has an incomparable knack for being cool. If his look does not sell it, his performance will. Esposito, on occasion, does not sing words, he sings attempts at words. Throughout the verses on ‘Headwind’, he closes each stanza with a recital of the song’s title. However the end result is less, “headwind, headwind”, more, “hay-wee, hay-wee-yeah”. It might sound tame if it weren’t for the confident rocking going on behind it.
It is that big, heavy sound where White Reaper thrive. ‘Hard Luck’ – the album’s longest song at four minutes – rides a sleazy riff. It is on electric overdrive, only to be fluffed up by some power piano chords. The song is absolutely huge – far bigger than the airy introduction would suggest. With a chorus to strain your neck to, ‘Hard Luck’ is also one of the most emphatic numbers.
The short blast of ‘Raw’ swiftly follows. A major tempo change, the song closely resembles a bar fight. The album stand-out is like a turbo-charge through the night sky. While the two-note riff gets a little repetitive in its 150-second runtime, the second half is one of the album’s strongest moments, thanks to Nick Wilkerson’s drums. The combination of the aforementioned two songs is a one-two punch to grip you and throw you around.
White Reaper, as they have teased on their first two records, are comfortable showing their sentimental side. The garage rock has morphed into power pop over time, but the heart is in the same place. ‘1F’ (a highway exit near Cincinnati) is a genuinely sincere song, almost surprising in its sweetness. Covering topics such as a lover and cars, it is very much the American Dream – if White Reaper wrote ‘Getaway Car’. The very personal number (“Sing songs to each other ‘cos we’re all we can get”) shines in the chorus; the backing vocals sound Grease-like while the ballad-pop unfolds.
White Reaper’s relationship with the audience is detrimental. The album titles, the ballsy swagger, the look: they only work if fans are in on the joke. The relationship is tested with ‘Eggplant’. The song is not, as one would expect, a sex organ-centred lament. Instead, an organ-centred sex lament (that is the best this writer can do, he apologises greatly). It is surprisingly the best song on the album: a schmaltzy number ripped straight from a disco in the ’80s.
‘You Deserve Love’ will not have quite the same lasting effect as their other projects, namely their previous album. Be it the similar song structures (the consistently brilliant keys from Ryan Hater dominate most songs) or the same topics, everything begins to blur into one after a while. And not in the classy, coherent manner that ‘The World’s Best American Band’ boasts. Songs come and go – they are short, enjoyable and then just move on.
The third album does still feel like a continuation of the White Reaper story. Power pop is a natural fit for them: the big choruses, racy presence, determined songwriting. Nonetheless they make space for the guitars that shaped the band’s early days. The title track may not end with the same fulfilled energy that previous records offer, but the strong guitar lead drives it home.
Make no mistake, White Reaper know how to have fun. ‘Ring’ and ‘Saturday’ are fine figures of a new, bigger sound that still resembles the past. The former is a foot-to-the-pedal stampede – the energy is maintained right to the thrilling (albeit abrupt) ending. The latter is, of course, a song for the weekend. The three-minute rocker is an album highlight – catchy, tight and exceedingly fun. With keys that are winking at you and a fine head-banging chorus, this is a song crafted for the car.
‘You Deserve Love’ finds White Reaper in stride. The quintet maintain that bite, that charm and, most importantly, the relationship with the listener. They are still that short-term rebound boyfriend, only now they are on the right path. They are washed, healthy and determined to evolve. Their third is not their best album, but an important reminder that even on their mildest days, they can put on a show. One day White Reaper will make it. Even if they don’t, their messages will matter to those who encounter them.
‘You Deserve Love’ by White Reaper is out now via Elektra Records