Jim White

Transnormal Skiperoo

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Jim White tends to take his time between albums -- Transnormal Skiperoo was only his fourth in over a decade, arriving an ample few years after 2004's Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See. By the time of its release, the Southern-souled transplant and perennial wanderer, who was then fifty, had settled down in a backwoods Georgia farmhouse and was reportedly experiencing "a strange new feeling...after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed." His name for that sensation is the endearingly off-kilter title phrase of the album, but judging from his description it sounds suspiciously similar to contentment. And Skiperoo is certainly his lightest, breeziest record to date, a turnaround from the frequently melancholy Substrate, musically as well as lyrically. That's not meant to imply a dramatic alteration in sound or style: since both sorrow and serenity translate into relatively understated, mellow musical terrain; the shift is a subtle one. Besides, White's always been a philosophical sort, the kind to pick up on the lighter sides of life's tragedies and portray the bitter with the sweet -- there's always a glimmer of redemption in his darkest tales of desperation; skepticism and hope commingled in his homespun gospel mysticism. Contentment hasn't made him any less ruminative, so there are still plenty of dark edges haunting these songs, whether they involve fictional others ("Fruit of the Vine"'s cocksure meth dealer; the tragic train-track suicide of "Take Me Away" -- a story-song in classic White style), his own personal demons (the touching "Plywood Superman"), or universally relatable existential pondering ("Counting Numbers in the Air") -- though it's telling that Skiperoo's most immediately affecting, poignant moment, the troubled-mind lament "Jailbird," dates back to 2001. On the other hand, all of his albums have had their fair share of goofy humor, so it's hardly a shock to hear the self-avowedly cornball "Turquoise House," a rootsy twanger with hilarious '30s-style backup vocals. In musical terms, Skiperoo is more of a continuation from its subdued predecessor than it is a return to the wide-ranging stylistic exploration of No Such Place (although the boisterous singalong "Crash Into the Sun" recalls that album's excellent loop-based rockers.) But White's distinctive, evocative blend of folk, country, gospel, blues, and pop never quite squares with the sum of its components, and as usual there's enough atmospheric sonic tomfoolery (the production this time around was mostly handled by Pernice Brothers Joe Pernice and Mike Deming) and unusual instrumental choices to keep it sounding agreeably, well, transnormal. While it may not be as striking an artistic statement as its predecessors, the general tone of easygoing bonhomie makes Transnormal Skiperoo a decidedly satisfying release, and the simple fact that it's an album's worth of fine new White material is in itself cause for plenty of contentment.

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