The Listening Post: May 2012

A remarkably good month for listening.

  • BlunderbussJack White. It’s as simple as this: Jack White’s first solo album is so good we should all buy him a gift this Christmas. The leadoff single, “Love Interruption”, was so uncharacteristic of White’s career that questions were immediately raised about what the sound of a White solo album would be. Despite that he was the guiding power of the White Stripes, that was clearly a sound that contained him. It was a punk version of blues, and Meg White’s primitive drumming was as much a part of the sound as White’s guitar. The Raconteurs, with their neo-classic rock leanings, allowed White to embrace the pure rock/pop side of his career. The Dead Weather were different yet again: industrial, Goth, techno blues rock. Will the real Jack White please stand up? On Blunderbuss, he does, and the result is the best album I’ve heard since 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely, or maybe even 2003’s landmark Elephant…both of which featured two different sides of Jack White. As rock performers go in the 21st century, there’s Jack White and everybody else. Nowhere is this more clear than on Blunderbuss, which is White’s Revolver. That’s a comparison I don’t make lightly and it deserves some explanation. Like Revolver, Blunderbuss touches on many styles: the Stripes-ish guitar skronk of “Sixteen Saltines”, the acoustic loveliness that underpins the devastating lyrics of “Love Interruption”, the melancholy dirge of “On And On And On”, souped up R&B in the Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin'” (which also gives a quick glimpse into White’s humor as he squeals “I’m noy-vous!”), the swirling country-tilted lullaby of the title track, the multi-layered, multi-faceted gem of “Take Me With You When You Go.” Yet also like Revolver, the album holds together as the coherent vision of a singular artist.

    Much is made of the lyrical content of the album, with comparisons to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. White divorced singer and model Karen Elson last year, and the lyrics on Blunderbuss could easily be seen as emanating from the broken-hearted aftermath of a marriage gone wrong. That may be too simple. If true, then Karen Elson gets the Good Sportmanship of the Year award for singing backup on the album. Whatever her singing talents are, it is simply impossible to imagine Sara Dylan singing backup vocals on “Idiot Wind”. Of course, breakups happen in other ways, too, and the other relationship of White’s that ended last year is the White Stripes. In some ways, it’s easier to see Blunderbuss as an embittered reaction to the ending of that relationship: “you betray your dead brother with another hypocritical kiss,” “black hat, white shoes, and I’m red all over”, “and you’ll be watching me, girl/taking over the world/let the stripes unfurl” all could tie back to the myths and image of the White Stripes. At the end of the day, though, it’s not that important. What is important is that the words are good, and the music is restlessly inventive and creative. For a Jack White record, what is possibly the strangest thing is that the main instrument is Brooke Waggoner’s gorgeously cascading, tinkling piano runs. Waggoner eschews the traditional rock piano sound of banging chords or Jerry Lee Lewis-style freneticism in favor of elegant runs. Also of note is drummer Carla Azar who plays everything with a wild, shuffling sound. Even on the heavier, rockier songs Azar provides a groove that simply will not quit. Her drumming is astounding throughout as she, as Waggoner does on piano, avoids rock music drumming clichés. Where almost any drummer would pound, Azar glides effortlessly. Waggoner and Azar, as much as White, make the sound of the album, and their refusal to play in the way a million rock pianists and drummers before them have played, makes Blunderbuss prime material for multiple listens. It’s difficult to imagine a better album than this coming out this year, or maybe this decade. Blunderbuss towers over its competition. The rich, subtle, and powerful instrumentation, the timeless lyrical concerns, the stubborn refusal to sound like any other rock album within earshot make this one a modern classic that will most likely stand the test of time. You know…like Revolver.
    Grade: A+
  • What Kind Of WorldBrendan Benson. Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel bad for Brendan Benson. His solo career has never risen past the small cult status, and the band in which he’s an equal partner (the mighty Raconteurs) is routinely referred to as a “Jack White side project” as if Benson didn’t write and sing half the songs. Now he’s released one of his best albums and it comes out the same day as…well, there’s that Jack White fella again, hogging the spotlight. But Benson has no reason to hang his head. What Kind Of World is an excellent album. As is typical of Benson albums, there are a couple of songs could have been better. “Keep Me” is a good little ditty that never rises past faint praise. “Bad For Me” swings perilously close to late 70s MOR and isn’t helped by a lackluster vocal and occasionally clumsy lyrics (“she sucks my soul”? Really?). But as downers go, both of these songs are pretty darn good. They’re just not up to the standard of the rest of the album, where Benson lets his hard-charging power pop flag fly. The album has more hooks than a tackle box, and Benson’s great achievement is remembering that “power pop” is supposed to have “power”. So in between the hooks are plenty of charging guitars, slinky bass grooves, and raucous vocals. Benson’s tunes are as catchy as the Spanish flu, but he never fails to remind you that he’s a rocker to the core. What keeps the album interesting are the brief detours like the country-flavored album closer “On The Fence” or the synth textures on the twisted tone poem “Pretty Baby”. Elsewhere, songs like “Here In The Deadlights”, “Met Your Match”, and “Come On” are more than ample evidence that Benson is a performer to be reckoned with and it is his sound and vision that the “Jack White side project” most closely emulates.
    Grade: A
  • Medium RareFoo Fighters. This is a largely unknown collection from Dave Grohl and company. It was released as a vinyl album in 2011 to celebrate Record Store Day, and it was a CD for subscribers to Britain’s Q magazine. This is a collection of cover songs that, with three exceptions, have all been released as single B-sides, soundtrack songs, and random non-Foo compilations. It shows the depth of the influences that run through the Foo Fighters. Kurt Cobain, despite his admitted Beatle fixation, would probably be appalled at Grohl’s choices here, but then Kurt sadly never took the opportunity to mature out of his indie/punk credibility issues. Grohl, however, has always been less shy about acknowledging his debt to rockers of the past. On Medium Rare he tips his hat to classic rock (Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run”, Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation”, Cream’s “I Feel Free”, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, a beautiful acoustic version of the Zombies’s deep cut “This Will Be Our Year”, and Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”), 80s New Wave (Gary Numan’s “Down In The Park”), early MTV (Joe Walsh’s “Life Of Illusion”), funk (Prince’s salacious “Darling Nikki”), old school punk (“Danny Says” from the Ramones), and both the melodic (Husker Du’s “Never Talking To You Again”) and blistering (“Gas Chamber” by the Bad Brains) sides of hardcore punk. There’s also a sloppy but reverent live version of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” that the band did for VH1 Rock Honors The Who. Of the tracks, only “Darling Nikki” misfires. The band plays it well, trading in Prince’s funk for Foos rock, but Grohl’s vocal—especially his throat-shredding screams of “Nikki!!!”—don’t serve the R-rated humor of the lyrics. Otherwise, these are all excellent covers. Drummer Taylor Hawkins sings “I Feel Free”, “Life Of Illusion”, and “Have A Cigar” and it’s a shame that the Foos don’t use him to sing one or two tracks per album. Vocally he could be the Keef to Grohl’s Mick. There’s really nothing mind-blowing on Medium Rare, and yet this is one of the most consistently good albums in the band’s repertoire. There is nothing that will make you reach for the “skip” button, either. The best of these performances are, no surprise, the best songs. “Band On The Run” is heavier than McCartney’s original, but Grohl wisely allows the arrangement to remain unaltered, and while “Baker Street” misses that justifiably famous saxophone hook, the guitar that takes its place does no harm. The songs are great and well-chosen, the performances are rock solid. What’s not to like?
    Grade: A-

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