Review Summary: Deserving of love
Who would have guessed that, in a decade where everyone ripped liberally from classic rock, it would take until the waning months of the 2010s for a band to put out a great glam rock album? In the past 10 years we heard Lorde sing over the drums from “In the Air Tonight,” Eric Church strike it rich with an homage to Bruce Springsteen and Springsteen’s E Street counterpart Clarence Clemons, the big man himself, lay down the sax for the last time on Lady Gaga and Katy Perry singles. The arena sound was alive, the arenas kept warm by anonymous country rockers filling the void before the new millennium's Motley Crues and Kisses moved in and kicked them back to Nashville. But they never showed up.
Blame it on geography. Hundreds of miles from the Los Angeles scene which birthed the hair metal revolution of the 1980s, White Reaper toiled away in flyover country— Louisville, KY. Frontman Tony Esposito is more William Bruce Rose than Axl— a rather anonymous midwesterner with a 1-guard haircut and a name that shows up after a former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender and a 70-year-old Italian drummer on Google. Does his voice recall Marc Bolan’s? Only when it’s not buried under layers of fuzzy power chords or modulated to sound like Jeff Lynne’s. Does it much matter when you’re headquartered in a musical desert that’s birthed one band of commercial consequence? Check the sales figures.
Which is why it’s so improbable that the group, buried under indie darlings like Alvvays on Polyvinyl’s roster, were able to make the jump to Electra, sales be damned. The band, caught in a fit of optimism and hopefulness, call their major label debut You Deserve Love. Their proudly backwards outlook on life— “everyone could use some love right now,” they offer as explanation for the record’s title, in the same way that Andrew Yang supposes that “everyone” could benefit from $1000 a month— is reflected in their single “1F,” about Esposito’s grandparents falling in love over their shared admiration of a car. Such territory is well-worn, even for the band, whose lover’s lane makeout jam “Little Silver Cross” anchored their previous effort: 2017’s The World’s Best American Band (When you’re from Louisville, you have to bestow all grandeur, deserved or otherwise, upon yourself).
Add in the band’s taste for guitar solos— to pick one out of a hat, the one on “Real Long Time” that sounds so much like Thin Lizzy that one may do a double take and find they’ve stumbled into a beer commercial— and all the ingredients of the macho posturing of hair metal are there to behold. White Reaper undercuts these most basic elements— the enthusiasm for the vintage, the guitar hero theatrics— with lyrics that are anything but tough. Before the cathartic sweep of the solo, Esposito spends “Real Long Time” riding the bus and staring at his shoes in fear of having a tough conversation. “Headwind,” in his own words, is about the emotion of “[surprise] that you got yourself out of a sticky situation.” This album full of radio-ready choruses, lead single “Might Be Right” graced the top 10 of the Adult Alternative charts, is grounded by Esposito’s earnestness.
The joy of getting away with something is shared by singer and listener. Is it radical (or radically immature), in this day and age, to listen to music that proudly trots out images of an America that we know to be idealized and whitewashed? To listen to a song called “Eggplant,” ostensibly a nonsense title, but with the emoji never far from the mind, about getting drunk and hitting on the girl in the corner booth? White Reaper, perhaps, could do more to address the moral conundrums inherent to their music, inspired as it is by rapists and drunks. Instead, they turn their amps up to 11 and try to drown out what introspection Esposito provides. It’s thrilling if, like the album’s title, a tad hollow.
There is a habitat in the ecosystem for White Reaper. The lingering question is: how big? They have long been tagged as garage rockers, even though they sound nothing like The Black Keys or The White Stripes or Ty Segall. As such, all this signals to me is the band doing a lot with a small budget. They are far too loud for the garage, too inclined to write poppy keyboard lines. As it stands, they are also too small for the arena; not yet are they larger than life, no band that writes love songs about their grandparents could be. And yet this is their charm. What could be more midwestern than flying down the road at 100 miles an hour with precisely nowhere to go?