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ATHENS, Ga. (Press Release) — Jim White gets around. When he’s not releasing his own critically acclaimed solo albums he splits time producing records for other songwriters, exhibiting his visual art in galleries and museums across the U.S. and Europe and publishing award winning fiction.
Prior to Waffles, Triangles & Jesus (due out in the U.S. on February 9, 2018 on People In A Place to Know label through Joyful Noise, White released five eclectic, uncategorizable albums, plus six even-stranger side projects. Numerous songs from his back catalog have appeared both in film and television, including his Primus-esque “Word-Mule” in Breaking Bad and more recently his cautionary rocker “Crash Into the Sun” appearing in Ray McKinnon’s highly praised Sundance Channel series Rectify.
A logical bookend to Wrong Eyed Jesus, White’s debut record, Waffles Triangles & Jesus charts yet another unique musical course. The moody strains of opener “Drift Away” kick off the record, incrementally building sonic impetus like some Appalachian whirlwind before exploding into a full-throated quasi-Celtic stomp.
A seeming nod to the golden age of American theater, the ensuing pastoral, “Long Long Day,” unfurls as if rendered by Aaron Copland after he’d been slipped a couple hits of top-notch LSD then embarked on a journey of self-rediscovery via some shambling, bucolic misremembered past.
As is often the case with White’s totally unpredictable approach to song craft, he eases his way back to solid ground via the kitschy, shaggy-dog-meets-space-guitar number “Playing Guitars,” accompanied on vocals by fellow indie loose cannon Holly Golightly. It’s a bit of musical alchemy that hits you the way a drunken Paul Simon/Ray Stevens collaboration might sound. Oh yeah, and if they then invited Ali Farka Touré to weave some of his melodic guitar magic over the ensuing bedlam. Oh yeah, and with Golightly singing harmonies. Confused? We are too. But somehow it all makes sense in White’s skewed aesthetic.
Never far removed from White’s sonic palate, African modalities rear their head in the sprightly “Far Beyond the Spoken World” as White effortlessly slips in and out of a falsetto typically not recommended for artists his age or gender. Banjos intermingle with Turkish cumbus, tabla, clave, hand cymbals and other exotic percussive instruments to create a welcoming organic groove.
From there White bangs a hard, pulse-quickening U-turn, arrowing toward ’80s indie pop with the epic break-up song “Silver Threads,” featuring West Coast dynamic duo Dead Rock West. A driving acoustic guitar riff laid over Marlon Patton’s ultra propulsive drum lines impels White and Cindy Wasserman’s vocal duet across emotional topography typically reserved for more morose tones. Not the case here, as triumphant vibes win the day, as White opts for notions of connectivity and hope over garden-variety self-pitying romantic malaise.
Center-point in the record finds White out on a sonic ledge with the jazz-tinged heart stopper “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Harkening back to White’s work on No Such Place, this cinematic tale of a reprobate Death Row prisoner casually confessing his crimes to a fledgling prison evangelist is reminiscent of a Jim Thompson novel, only accompanied by a wickedly syncopated jazz core that’s offset by a bevy of sonic bangles in the forms of vibes, hooting whistles, muted trumpet solos and more.
Known for his unflinching portraits of life in the poor South, White modulates into familiar territory in the ensuing triptych of songs, starting with the somber pedal steel laced “Reason To Cry,” a lament exploring the darkest corners of Southern spirituality and madness. Case in point: even as the doomed protagonist recounts his plunge into a life of solitary dementia he frets for the well-being of his fellow townsfolk, most of whom have turned their backs on him due to his affliction.
Then down the sorrowful pike comes a reworking of an older song in White’s catalog, “Wash Away a World,” the tale of a disaffected, abused farm boy who can find no solace in the tropes of conventional groundings. With narrative content echoing Flannery O’Conner’s work and the arrangement borrowing heavily from the Tom Waits oeuvre, this song will likely become a favorite for White’s hardcore fan base, which consists primarily of English professors, defrocked priests and renegade psychiatrists.
Then comes the most unlikely song on a record of one-offs, an homage to a bit character from The Andy Griffith Show — the unhinged hillbilly Ernest T. Bass — who, in White’s twisted imagination, has at last found true love. White’s whimsical duet with Cicada Rhythm’s Andrea De Marcus, aJuilliard-trained stand-up bass player and vocalist in the Billie Holiday tradition, clears the palate clouded by the bitters of the previous three rural American daymares.
As if to more completely remedy the emotional spiral of the preceding numbers, White’s affable “Here I Am” ambles along good heartedly, dismissing any notion of self denigration in favor of, well, unqualified self-acceptance. Slinky, emblematic slide-guitar riffs over tumbling drum patterns underscore White’s endearingly lackadaisical, homespun philosophy offered up in lines such as “I saw my past and all my sins, crossroads where I turned wrong. And I guess I should have been ashamed, but it was not the case at all. What can you say, but hey-hey-hey, well, here I am…?” If The Dude from the The Big Lebowski had a theme song, this might just be it.
Waffles Triangles & Jesus closes with White’s uber-tender homage to his unborn daughter, written some 20 years ago at a tumultuous juncture when it appeared he and his child would never meet. A luminous prayer, “Sweet Bird of Mystery” is an offering White never revealed to his eldest until she was grown and able to comprehend the gravitas of such complicated life configurations. Keiko Ishibashi’s impassioned violin accompaniment lifts the composition to a dizzying emotional height, lending a decidedly Eastern feel to this ethereal finale.
The consummate collaborator, White, who plays multiple instruments on the record and also produced it, deftly employs a large cast of disparate souls on WTJ, leaning heavily on arch-traditionalist bluegrass outfit Hog Eyed Man, featuring fiddle champion Jason Cade, who doubles on clawhammer banjo as well. White’s usual suspects make strategic appearances: Rob McMaken on multiple stringed instruments, Marlon Patton on drums and bass, Pat Hargon doing star turns on guitar, with newcomer trumpet wizard Josh Klein showing fine improvisational form on several of the more upbeat tracks.
White opts for the more-is-more approach to record-making, and in the hands of a less skilled producer such a tsunami of elements could likely render the end product a train wreck of disparate influences, and yet somehow the whole record works stem to stern, defying the odds like some fantastically designed Dr. Seuss high-rise.
White is presently at work completing a memoir, Incidental Contact, based on a series of uncanny coincidences that befell him during his days driving a taxi in New York City. Two chapters of Incidental Contact, “The Bottom” and “Superwhite,” have been published in the literary music journal Radio Silence, with “Superwhite” awarded a Pushcart Prize for short fiction.
As a young man White led a self-described aimless, diverse life, working countless menial labor jobs: dishwasher, landscaper, lifeguard, cook, fiberglass laminator, road builder, culminating with 13 long years behind the wheel of that NYC taxi. He was a pro surfer. He served as literary commentator for the National Endowment of the Arts. He did a stint as a European fashion model. Samuel Beckett once played a practical joke on him. There’s a lot of additional non-linear information that doesn’t really fit the usual bio format.
But that’s Jim — he gets around.