Move over, James Brown. The hardest working man in show biz is Jack White. Since the White Stripes first burst into public consciousness with their third album, the brilliant White Blood Cells, guitarist and singer Jack White has been omnipresent. He has released three albums with the White Stripes, two albums with The Raconteurs, produced an album for Loretta Lynn, toured extensively, released a live Stripes DVD, jammed with the Stones, Pete Townshend, and Bob Dylan, finished working on the forthcoming guitar geek documentary It Might Get Loud, prepped a new White Stripes documentary due out this fall, opened a record store/record label/rehearsal space/recording studio in Nashville, got married and had a child, and has formed his third band, The Dead Weather. I get tired just thinking about it. The kicker is this: he’s been great at everything he’s done. Jack White is having a stretch of several years that most musicians only dream about: whatever he touches turns to gold. He simply can’t do anything wrong at this point. I’m sure that he will stumble at some point; everybody does. But right now, he’s got a really hot hand and he’s smart enough to take advantage of it.
Horehound is the first album by The Dead Weather, and White takes a back seat (literally) on this project. Unlike his other bands, White is not the focus of attention here. He’s not even the guitarist: for this project he returns to his first instrument, the drums. Surprise, surprise: yes, he’s even a very good drummer. He’s also not the lead singer. While White sings lead on one cut, the vocals are handled by the smoldering Alison Mosshart of The Kills, who sings in a voice amazingly similar to…Jack White’s. The bass duties are picked up by Jack Lawrence of The Greenhornes and The Raconteurs, and the guitar and keyboards are Dean Fertita of Queens Of The Stone Age.
Jack White has always come across as the decent, respectable boy of rock and roll. He’s finding it harder to be a gentleman, but he’s trying. He wants to be the boy to warm your mother’s heart. He wants to settle down and get married by a priest. He thinks that we are gonna be friends. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, apparently. He does have a dark side, of course. Jack’s greatest sin is his power of manipulation, evidenced on Stripes songs like “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.”
On Horehound, Jack White loses his innocence to a maneater named Mossheart. The sonic difference between The Dead Weather and his other bands is immediately apparent. The White Stripes sound like blues lovers on a Zeppelin binge. The Raconteurs are a country-inflected classic rock band. The Dead Weather? A cross between Nine Inch Nails, the Cure, and Lucifer.
The star of The Dead Weather is Alison Mossheart. She is the strutting, ravenous alpha-female. One can almost see the discarded bones of her previous lovers as she struts past. If you look in her eyes you’re turned to stone, as if she were a beautiful Gorgon. Rolling drums, plucked guitar strings, synthesized sounds start “60 Feet Tall,” as Mossheart croons “You’re so cruel and shameless/But I can’t leave you be…You’ve got the kind of loving/I need constantly.” She-Devil Mossheart has her eyes set on someone who isn’t good for her. It’s okay, though, because she can take the trouble. Mossheart is the flip of Jack White. If White is the nice guy with a naughty, manipulative streak, Mossheart is the girl who is attracted to the bad, but is herself bad enough to leave nothing but scorched earth in her wake. She feeds on the bad…and she’s got the manipulator Jack in her sights. Ferocious guitars and the raunchiest, filthiest bass I’ve ever heard slam in and out of the song while White plays Mitch Mitchell-style rolls.
Mossheart lets White know early that his manipulation won’t work on her. “You say that I love you/But it ain’t true…I’d like to grab you by the hair/And drag you to the Devil,” Mossheart spits on the brilliant “Hang You From The Heavens” as the thick, intense music swirls up and down around her. On his sole lead vocal, White protests that he may look like he can be easily defeated, but he’s really made of much tougher stuff. “I may look like a woman/But I cut like a buffalo,” he sings on “I Cut Like A Buffalo” as the instruments create a wall of frequently discordant noise behind him.
Jack’s claim of toughness isn’t having any sway on Mossheart. She counters Jack’s claim by informing him that he’s unable of manipulating her and helpless before her. She’s got him pinned, and he just wants to get up. “I said no,” Mossheart sings in a tired voice on “So Far From Your Weapon,” as if she’s already tiring of the game.
The peak of this extraordinary album is “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” which could act as a soundtrack for the Götterdämmerung. White’s manipulative ways are crushed by Mossheart. White and Mossheart trade vocals, but it’s Mossheart’s show. “Stand up like a man!/You better learn to shake hands/And treat me like your mother,” Mossheart scolds. White responds, as if it’s his brain trying to convince him what to do: “Play dumb/Play dead/Try to manipulate…” But he’s never met anyone quite like Mossheart, who spits his own words back at him, going so far as to spell out for him “M-A-N-I-P-You late!” It’s all too late, for Jack. He’s crossed over.
By the next song, “Rocking Horse” the nice boy is writing letters to God:
I drank some dirty water
Shook evil hands
I’ve done some bad things
And they get easier to do
Then I wrote a nasty letter
And I sent it to the Lord
I said don’t you dare come
And bother me no more
Mossheart joins him on the vocals, strengthening the theme, joining him at his evil hip.
A cover of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” serves to reinforce the basic theme. While the lead vocals are all Mossheart, the lyrics reflect the same back and forth between the two principles. Over a brutal heavy metal industrial backing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ministry song, Mossheart first sings about owning a lame pony named Lucifer who needs shooting. In the second verse, she takes on White’s role, wondering what’s going on in the mind of Miss X. In the third verse she again is scolding White. His “nasty letter to the Lord” from “Rocking Horse” is going to be turned against him: “That god you been praying to/Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishin’ on someone else.” She ends the song with the blatantly sexual imagery of climbing up on the pony, who is bad and nasty, but she loves him anyway.
On “Bone House,” Mossheart lets Jack know that she’s the one who is in the position of power for now, for ever. An industrial blues song, with judicious synthesized guitar licks and clanging cymbals, “Bone House” finds Mossheart breaking the news to Jack that she always gets what she wants, and she does it by putting his heart in a vault. “I’ll build a house for your bones,” she informs him.
The instrumental “3 Birds” follows, and sounds like a soundtrack from some lost movie. Lawrence’s bass drives the song with keyboards, drums, and guitar noises providing color. It took me a while to like it, but I do. At around the 1:40 mark, when the synthesizer and the psychedelic Sergio Leone acoustic guitar come in and take over the song, I was sold.
On the penultimate track, “No Hassle Night” Mossheart once again provides the voice for both herself and Jack. The relationship, one of anger, manipulation, and, presumably, unbelievably great sex, is all but over. Both Mossheart and White are wasted, done. “I’m looking for a place to go/Where I can lay low/Die slow,” Mossheart sings. Her voice is tired, the musical accompaniment thick and slow. “I’ve become her and it hurts my mind.” At this point, the lovers are exhausted and all they want is a night without any problems.
“Will There Be Enough Water?” ends the album. The thick, industrial sound of the album is gone, with just a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, delicate piano, and light drums providing a bluesy backdrop as Mossheart and, predominantly, White meet their reckoning. “Will there be enough water/When my ship comes in?” they wonder. “When I set sail/Will there be enough wind?” One can’t help but think the answer is no. These lovers are doomed.
This final track is, unfortunately, the sole bum song on the disc. It’s not a bad three minute song. The problem is that it’s over six minutes long, and never really goes anywhere. But as for the rest of the album…simply brilliant. Grade: A