Careful: Something sexy this way slinks. On sophomore effort In Bardo, White Arrows seem to have grown significantly more confident in their ability to compose, perform, and yes, seduce.
The word bardo is Tibetan and refers to a transitional state between life and death. Within the cyclical worldview of Buddhism, “death” does not refer to an end, but to the liminal state before beginning life again in another form, a sort of pre-beginning. With this title, White Arrows seem to declare themselves as a band who has changed since their debut, the self-recorded and well-received Dry Land Is Not a Myth. However, they’re still on the path toward enlightenment, their hope for the future tempered by anxiety of the unknown.
Whether overt or subtle, In Bardo never strays far, sonically or thematically, from raw and sensual experience. On album opener “I Want a Taste”, singer Mickey Schiff goes into a smooth falsetto, over quivering bass and a skittering programmed beat, to invoke masochism via empowerment: “I’m gonna bite my tongue because I like the taste/ I want a taste/ I’m gonna bite your tongue/ You know what it takes/ Is that what it takes?” Similarly, on “Chill Winston” (no doubt a reference to a beloved line from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), distorted guitar and moody synth back Schiff as he wails through clenched teeth, “Suffering, suffering, suffering/ Suffering brings me truth.” It is inconclusive whether the quasi-Buddhist sentiment is freshman-level comparative religion insight or the learned nihilism of lived hardship.
Therein lies the blueprint for In Bardo and White Arrows’ sound. The quintet of Schiff (vocals, guitar), Steven Vernet (bass), Andrew Naeve (electronics, guitar), John Paul Caballero (electronics, guitar), and Henry Schiff (drums) creates moody pop-rock that is alternately psychedelic, pensive, danceable, and more than a little raunchy (there is little question to what Schiff refers when he purrs, “I want to make you scream” on “Scream”).
Elements of nihilistic abandon provide a thematic thread throughout In Bardo, as the band develops an alternative philosophy grounded in making substance out of absence. On “Nobody Cares”, the solitary, unobserved life becomes a rallying cry. Light percussion, jittery guitar, and atmospheric synth evoke The xx at their most lucid, but White Arrows distinguish themselves by refusing to linger in the dark, instead building their sound and selves out of failure and lack. Patient and subdued, “Nobody Cares” features an extended bridge/outro that is a hallmark of accomplished pop songwriting. It seems that with evidence of intellectual growth, Schiff and company are displaying budding songwriting chops.
Lest you think the whole record is moody and atmospheric (only most of it is), Schiff and company take the vibrancy of youth to an extreme in the uptempo and anthemic “We Can’t Ever Die”. “Only the young die young,” Schiff asserts before declaring himself, and whoever else “we” might encapsulate, as indestructible forces of energy. Similarly, “Can’t Stop Now” features another empowering and anthemic chorus, but the passages of slow-building mood surrounding the scintillating synth makes the explosion of emotion feel earned.
While White Arrows’ future has yet to be written, and the band itself seems unclear of where they are headed, if they continue to improve at this rate, all signs point to further success. Perhaps the best comparison would be The Horrors, who themselves transitioned from garage punkers into pop proggers. With two albums under their belt, White Arrows are further along that spectrum and seem to contain infinite potential to emerge from this bardo-state into something complete and entirely original.
Essential Tracks: “I Want a Taste”, “Nobody Cares”, and “Chill Winston”