[10 June 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
At its core, the recent “feud” between Jack White and the Black Keys is really only one thing: hilarious. White’s complaints about that Akron duo ripping off his sound—which he since apologized for—are, at best, marginally true. Though groups like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have come up with some creative ideas in their time, the nature of the rock revival movement itself is that it is heavily reliant on tropes and song structures lifted from the golden era of classic rock. So, sure, songs like the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarines” sounds like a half-and-half pastiche of Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty. White, meanwhile, being the music historian that he is, clearly spends a lot of time listening to old blues rock LPs, mining not just their compositional technique but their production tricks as well. Even with the best rock revival outfits, the question of “ripping off” is explained by degrees, not with a yes or no answer. (Plus, White’s commenting on the Black Keys in particular is odd, as he backed the New Zealand crooner Willy Moon last year, who is equally if not more guilty of the alleged sonic theft.)
But being able to clearly identify the inspirations of a particular artist doesn’t mitigate whatever creative achievements he may have. With Brothers, the Black Keys perfected their formula and crossed over into the mainstream in a noteworthy way. White’s tenure in the White Stripes made him the modern-day rock icon he clearly intends to be. After the dissolution of the White Stripes, he joined up with groups like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather—all the while remaining in high demand as a producer. These achievements all go to show that what matters in this case is not how many derivative sonic moves rock purists can point out about either artists—there are certainly plenty—but rather what new things the artists do with their recognizable sources.
More importantly than all of that, however, is that while White and the Black Keys may be in the business of rock revival, they go about it in substantially different ways. On his 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss, White demonstrated his prowess in recreating the ‘50s and ‘60s rock sounds he so admires, in a fashion simultaneously orthodox and contemporary. He sounds like a classic rock artist; in an interview with PopMatters, Ben Gibbard called him “the last one left” of that kind. The Black Keys, in contrast, sound like they’re trying to sound like a classic rock band. Though indebted to a lot of ‘70s rock, the filters they put that sound through in the studio (which, as of late, has often included washes of psychedelic haze courtesy of Danger Mouse) make them feel more contemporary than classic. As David Gassman put it in his PopMatters review of Brothers, the retro quality of the Black Keys is such that a lot of their music following their first collaboration with Danger Mouse, 2008’s Attack & Release, sounds a lot like “a harder-rocking collection of Gnarls Barkley backing tracks”. White, on the other hand, sounds like he time-travelled from the golden days of classic rock; he’s comfortable in the present day, but he’s also versed in the turns and tricks of the old school in a way many of his contemporaries are not.
That feature of White is one of many reasons why Lazaretto, his second solo effort, is such a solid collection of rock tunes. Though at times it is easy to tell the influences on a particular track, White’s deep knowledge of and love for his source material reflects in how effortlessly he makes it feel new. A number like “Just One Drink” sounds like a repository for the tropes of multiple blues standards, but White knocks it out of the park in execution. White knows well that just because something may be standard doesn’t make it uninteresting. Blues definitely played a part in Blunderbuss, but it’s undoubtedly the key sonic thread that underlies most of the material on Lazaretto.
This was a wise move on White’s part, for in doing so he avoids one of Blunderbuss’ weaknesses. That album, while a promising first entry for White as a solo artist, was structurally a bit off; the balance between the heavy themes of loss and separation in the lyrics and the musical diversity of the record was not so neatly struck. Lazaretto has its tangential moments, but on the whole it is far more unified a listen. Opener and record highlight “Three Women” encapsulates all of White’s strong suits as a rock musician: killer riffs, flawless production, and a dizzying display of classic rock technique. Though it feels like a tune more likely to close rather than open a concert, it provides a powerful jolt of energy that enlivens all that follow it. “Three Women” is also one of the instances on Lazaretto where prog becomes a critical element to the music. On the Queen-indebted, proggy “Would You Fight for My Love?”, White nails an epic falsetto passage that brings in an appropriate amount of grandeur to these proceedings. It’s a moment of ostentatious performance in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward collection of tunes. As if “Would You Fight For My Love?” didn’t bring enough energy on its own, the swanky instrumental “High Ball Stepper” picks right up after it, serving as a stellar showcase for the tight interplay White has with the host of players he brought on for this record.
The aforementioned tangential moments, while comparatively weaker than tracks like “Three Women” or “Would You Fight for My Love”, fortunately don’t derail the flow of the record much. The country-inflected “Temporary Ground”—a nice reminder that White produced Van Lear Rose all those years ago—feels the most out of place. The peppy piano of “Alone in My Home” throws back to the White Stripes’ “My Doorbell” in a pretty obvious way. Curiously enough, the catchy “That Black Bat Licorice” sounds more akin to the kind of “hipster” rock that the Black Keys purvey in, the guitar tone in particular. Nevertheless, the cases where White falters don’t come close to outweighing the overall success that is Lazaretto. White is an omnivore in all matters rock and roll, and even if his eyes are bigger than his stomach, it’s still a marvel to watch his vision unfold over Lazaretto‘s 11 tracks. “You drink water / I drink gasoline,” White sings on “Just One Drink”. He sure isn’t kidding.
Even though it may be part of the rock and roll spirit to push through petty personal drama and care about the music above all else, the history of the genre is littered with feuds and scandals. Quite often, the press gins up these controversies to levels that don’t represent the reality of the situations as they actually happened. Whether it is really the case that Yoko Ono and Courtney Love really are the “band-wreckers” they’ve been depicted as in perpetuity remains to be seen. (The misogynistic overtones of those myths certainly don’t lend them much credibility.) In other instances, just as White did with the Black Keys, artists themselves stoke those fires. Amidst a sea of authenticity battles and tabloid feuds, it is easy to commit the common error of forgetting about the music entirely. In White’s case, while his comments may have been ill-formed or, as already mentioned, hilarious, when one pushes past the muckraking and puts Lazaretto on, all the silliness fades away. This is an exceptional rock album by a guy who really is the kind of rock star he’s aiming to be.