Jack White tries too hard.
And I’m not just talking about his work schedule—we all know he’s a busy man, churning out other, more high profile releases with the Raconteurs and the White Stripes, as well as producing other artists and lending his talents to soundtrack work. I’m also talking about his image. He’s always been elusive and eccentric, convincing the public that his ex-wife Meg White was his sister, employing candy-coated color schemes, and generally playing up his difficult artiste credentials. He’s also no stranger to a good old-fashioned bar fight. He’s a rock star—there’s no denying it, but in a popular music age where anonymity outweighs bravado (Bye bye, Bowie; hey there, Chris Martin), Jackie Boy’s old-fashioned quirks stick out like sore thumbs.
Since breaking free from his own self-imposed studio limitations in the White Stripes by embracing more colorful, overdubbed, fleshed-out arrangements with the Raconteurs, White uses his newest band as a means to split the difference, using a full band format but employing it with jam session pace and color. With the Dead Weather, White and company (former Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita, Jack Lawrence, also of the Raconteurs, on bass, and Alison Mosshart of the Kills on vocals), try too hard to not try too hard.
Horehound, the band’s debut, was a fairly thrilling slice of demonic blues—not too surprising, definitely not revolutionary, but its dark, sweat-soaked tunes got the dirty job done. It wasn’t much of a formula mix-up: the biggest shocks were in the liner notes. Honestly, though, White on drums didn’t come as much of a shock for those familiar with his percussive history, even less so since Fertita’s fiery guitar pyrotechnics reprised White’s six-string heroics amicably.
The big question at hand was whether or not Mosshart could command the microphone with as much gusto and personality as her bandmate and, at the same time, not leave the fans feeling a lack of Jack. The answer was that they sounded pretty much the same anyway, with Mosshart basically coming across like White with a shot of estrogen.
It sounded pretty great, but was it simply filling the grimy, bluesy void left by absence of a new White Stripes record? Up for debate. One thing’s for sure, though: for the Dead Weather Round Two, it’s time to put up or shut up and make a record of enough quality to warrant a supergroup.
Although it’s not like White really cares, anyway. The album begins in such a tossed-off manner, the first track actually has “blues” in the title. “Blue Blood Blues”, to be exact, a rare Dead Weather track dominated vocally by White, as he shouts seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics: “I love you so much I don’t need to exist” and “All the white girls trip when I sing at Sunday service.” It all adds up to pretty much nothing more than some sweet Jimmy Page-style riffing, but that seems like the point.
Better news: as the album progresses, the band keeps the pummeling drive of their past work but ups the ante by throwing in some new sonic reference points. “Gasoline” brings in some funk and reggae influence as Fertita’s sweaty organ sizzles over thick bass and loose-snared drums. “Die By the Drop” is Krautrock smeared in sludge, its progression formed primarily from a single pounded piano/bass note. For once, though, a little less White would have been nice—his portion of the vocal call-and-response with Mosshart sounds forced and hammy. Instead of working as a nice contrast, his part feels wedged-in and unnecessary, as if he felt bored behind the kit and had to get his two cents in. White sings a few other times, too, sometimes in tandem with Mosshart, occasionally on his own (like the warped Hail Mary prayer in “Old Mary”). Mosshart, sounding more confident than ever, occasionally reaching a Karen O level of sensual swagger, is the more consistently effective vocal presence. At this point, it sounds like she’s ready to step out in the front of the mic by herself for a whole album. Plus, White sounds more creative and confident behind the kit, too.
“Hustle and Cuss” is likely their finest, most cohesive moment. Lawrence’s lean, popping bass groove is echoed in unison by Fertita’s smoky guitar tone. White keeps it light and splashy on the cymbals, and Mosshart is simultaneously sexy and frightening behind the mic, a seductive witch in a bath of prime, Zeppelin I psychedelic ooze: “Knock on the door / The door knock’s back / Joke never go no further than that / Fire go back inside the match.” Sounds great—please don’t hurt me. It gets scarier—by the end of “I Can’t Hear You”‘s relentless pound, Mosshart’s vocals and Fertita’s guitars have mutated into a two-headed mythical beast of distortion, slaying everything in its path.
On Horehound, Fertita bottled up his experimental tendencies, and they exploded on his powerful, jaw-dropping solo during “Bone House”. Throughout Sea of Cowards, Fertita’s guitars are frequently drenched in futuristic effects, adding a modern touch to the rustic vibe.
They finally sound like a band—at least a lot more so on their debut, where, for all their glory, they often came across like four (certainly better than average) blues musicians shooting the shit on a couple weekends off. And that’s kind of what it was. On Sea of Cowards, they’ve made an album that manages to sound like they give a damn about not giving a damn, and one that’s pretty compelling, more often than not.
Jack White and the Dead Weather always sound like they have something up their collective sleeve. Thank God (and the Devil) they do.