Jack White: Lazaretto

Jack_White_-_Lazaretto

In 1967, blues guitar genius Michael Bloomfield quit his day job with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to create a new group. The Electric Flag was devoted, in Bloomfield’s words, to playing “American music”. Rock, blues, soul, country, and R&B all figured into the mix. They released one album before Bloomfield, always a guy with a short attention span, left. The album, A Long Time Comin’, is a flawed gem. There’s some superb blues (“Texas”), some great soul (“Over Loving You”), and a wicked rave on the old R&B song “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”. In attempting to be all-encompassing “American music” the album falls short. It was too big a concept, one that required over-thinking on the part of the band’s leaders. Years later, Gram Parsons dubbed his music “Cosmic American Music” but no matter how you sliced it, Parsons was a country boy. His two solo albums are staggeringly brilliant, but they’re almost pure country. Perhaps the most successful attempt at “American Music” was the Stephen Stills project, Manassas. Over four sides of a self-titled album, Manassas toured the music scene, touching on everything from rock to Latin music. It’s a lost classic LP (the band was so good Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman said it was the only group he’d quit the Stones to join), but it also has that quality that marred the Electric Flag album: the concept isn’t organic. Sides are neatly divided into themes. A second album was a flop.

The problem with these attempts at “American Music” is that they fail to recognize that American music is as much a melting pot as the country.

Which brings me to Jack White.

White has, as far as I know, never referred to his music as “American”, cosmic or otherwise. He simply plays what he wants to play. The White Stripes were blues run through a Led Zeppelin filter and played with punk rock intensity. The Raconteurs are straight up classicist rock music and power pop. The Dead Weather explores White’s interest in dark, Gothic, industrial music. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, was a masterpiece of songwriting and performance. His latest album, Lazaretto, falls short of that mark, but in some ways clarifies White’s vision. Lazaretto is American music.

Unlike the earlier albums discussed, White doesn’t separate the different genres. He puts them all into the melting pot and what comes out is uniquely his. The best example on the album is the title track. There are hints of progressive rock in the keyboards and synthesizers, the guitar is screamingly loud in the finest rock tradition, there are bluegrass violins playing over the end of the song, the groove is funk, and the vocal delivery is rap. Yes, he’s even a good rapper. Of course, since this is Jack White the lyrics are about being quarantined in a leper colony, making models of people using coffee and cotton, and having discussions with God, rather than the bling he’s wearing. I’ve never cared for rap; I find it too repetitive, not melodic, and far too much of it is disturbingly racist and sexist. But if more rap songs had lyrics about leper colonies, and were set to an instrumental backing of scorching lead guitar and Appalachian fiddle, I’d be on board.

What White has done with this song (and with the other song that uses a rap delivery, “That Black Bat Licorice”, is combine the dominant strains of popular music from the past sixty years: blues, rock, country, and rap. He’s also added in his trademark eccentricities in the lyrics. “Licorice” makes references to Roman hypocausts, Nietzsche, Freud, and either the Egyptian god Horus or the Roman poet Horace (I’m guessing the latter). It also has the lines “I mean, she’s my baby/But she makes me get avuncular/And when my monkey is jumping/I got no time for making up for her” which, aside from being funny, is a sophisticated rhyme scheme.

White’s humor is clear throughout. The man may be the PT Barnum of rock and roll, a prankster and promoter of supreme ability. Consider the vinyl version of the album, which is the highest selling vinyl record in over 20 years. White has brought his showmanship to the grooves of his record by forcing people to interact and actually think about putting on music. Side one of the album is a standard shiny LP, but side two is flat matte to reproduce the look of old 78 RPM records. Side one of the album plays backwards…that’s right, you drop the needle at the end of side one for it to play. The run out groove on side one is etched with holographic angels that can only be seen from a certain angle. There are two extra songs on the vinyl LP…hidden under the label. One of these songs is played at 45 RPM. The other at 78 RPM, making Lazaretto a three-speed record. The first song on side two (“Just One Drink”) has an acoustic intro or an electric intro, depending on which groove you drop the needle into. Lastly, there are continuous loops of sound at the end of each side, similar to the run out groove on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you got the LP from White’s exclusive website (The Vault), the album was blue and white vinyl instead of black, and the cover was black and white instead of blue. It’s all promotional, but it also forces the listener to experience the tactile sensation of playing music, a sensation that any music geek will tell you increases the connection with the music in a way that you don’t get with a sound file. It certainly lacks the convenience of an MP3, but it’s actually fun to see and experience the process. And Jack White is clearly having a lot of fun…probably more than anyone in the music business except Dave Grohl. White is rock’s greatest eccentric and musical wildcard since Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

The album also jams country, Delta blues, piano ballads, Zeppelin riffs, and just about anything else you can think of into its eleven tracks, frequently combining some or all the elements into a single song. The opener, “Three Women” is an updating of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues”, though it lifts the “Lordy Lord” chorus from McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues”. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the album, in stark contrast to the delightfully schizophrenic “Would You Fight For My Love?” “Temporary Ground” features White duetting with Lillie Mae Rische on a song that blends country and rock; “Entitlement” takes a vicious, and well-deserved, stab at the Entitled Generation; “High Ball Stepper” is an instrumental that sounds like Emerson, Lake and Palmer jamming with Led Zeppelin; “Want And Able” would fit perfectly at the end of any White Stripes album; and “Just One Drink” is country as played by the Rolling Stones, sounding like a lost track from Exile on Main Street. And if the connection to “American music” isn’t clear enough, White even throws in a lyrical reference to “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”, the song the Electric Flag covered as their R&B track.

Jack White has come very close to perfecting “American music”…a stew of blues, rock, country, folk, bluegrass and, now, hip-hop. He hasn’t done it by trying his hand at different styles, the way Bloomfield, Stills, or Parsons did. Instead, White has completely assimilated the music he loves and spits it back out through the prism of his own prodigious talent. Lazaretto is not as good as Blunderbuss; it tries too hard in spots where the previous album seemed effortless, and Lazaretto takes several listens to appreciate where Blunderbuss was instantly likable. Nevertheless, it’s another stunning collection from a great musical talent that is peaking in his creativity.

Grade: A

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An Open Letter To Jack White

Dear Jack,

Allow me to gush for a minute. I’m second-to-none in my admiration and respect for the music you create, and the music you champion. Although I was an admirer of the White Stripes after my first exposure to them (White Blood Cells, as is true for most people), it was after the release of Elephant that I signed on the Jack White train. Since then I’ve looked at the White name as being an imprimatur for quality music. The Stripes, sure, but also the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, the Third Man stable of singles, and most recently Blunderbuss, an album I rated as a solid A+ and compared to Revolver. If it’s got the Third Man logo on it, chances are good that I own it. And that includes The Vault premium membership releases. I admire your playing, your singing, your songwriting. If you recommend the work of another artist, I go out of my way to give that artist a listen (Seasick Steve, for example).

The thing that has always struck me the most, though, is that you get it. Whatever “it” may be in terms of music, you get it. You understand the power of the music. You get the romance of sitting down with an LP, lowering the needle onto the vinyl, and losing yourself for 30-40 minutes. Most people don’t. They like music, of course. They may even consider themselves “fans” of this band or that singer. But only music obsessives (like me and, I assume, like you) know the rush of putting on the new album by one of your favorite artists, or a time-worn classic that you just can’t get out of your system, and listening to it to the point where it becomes hardwired into your DNA. There are so many albums like that for me: the entirety of the Beatles oeuvre, Quadrophenia, Sticky Fingers, Bringing It All Back Home, Forever Changes, just to name a few. I know every note on those albums. That little drum fill, the sudden change-up in the bass, the slight break in the singer’s voice. You know what I’m talking about, Jack.

You get it.

Then, of course, there’s the other side: seeing your favorite acts performing live. For me, that rush of blood to the head seeing Paul McCartney live and thinking, “This is a Beatle. In front of my very eyes.” Or seeing the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and countless others. It is electric to see these people demonstrating their art, showing their mastery, hearing them speak (“How are you, New York?” Well, I’m doing just great now that you’re on stage. Thanks for asking.). You get almost giddy seeing that stage set up, hearing the piped in music as the crowd comes in around you, waiting for the house lights to dim, seeing the movement on the fringes of the stage. Then the mounting anticipation when you finally hear those first notes as the musicians hit a few strings to make sure they’re live and in tune. You know what I mean, Jack.

You get it.

So what the hell happened at Radio City Music Hall on September 29th?

I admit that I wasn’t there, but I know people who were, including music obsessives like me and you. These were people who spent hard-earned money in bad economic times to come see you; people who decided that the greatest birthday celebration would be to see Jack White live at one of the great venues in all the world; people who spent money on gas, tolls, and parking. More to the point, these were people who went through all the feelings of anticipation that I described above. And what did they get? A 50-minute show (at best) plus a couple of snotty comments directed at them from the man they paid to see. Then a walk-off the stage. No encore. No bringing out the female band.

And no explanation.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong at gigs. I understand that. I saw The Who when Pete Townshend had a fever of 102 degrees. “A lot less jumping around, but I played some great guitar that night,” he said of the two-hour show. I saw Los Lobos play a short set when Cesar Rosas couldn’t get an amplified note out of his guitar for the first ten minutes…but they played their full, alloted time. I saw Albert Collins in a small bar when his guitar kept cutting out on him (he played for 90 minutes). I’ve been to concerts with lousy sound, and in lousy conditions. I’ve been to great shows, and a couple of really, really bad shows. Lonnie Brooks was incendiary in his first set when I saw him. By the second set he was so wasted he had to sit on a chair to play.

But the act you pulled at Radio City Music Hall was like something you read about in the biographies of the most unreliable rock stars. This was Jim Morrison passing out before the show. This was Sly Stone wandering off stage never to return. This was Axl Rose slamming his microphone on the stage and shouting “I’m going home.”

My friends left the show that night confused and angry. But the root of the anger…and you get this because you get it…was disappointment. You’ve always seemed to be something of an anomaly in rock music. You’ve always come across as a straight shooter who cares about his fans. Through Third Man Records you seek to bring great music to more people.

But leaving a show halfway through with no explanation, and no apologies, is prima donna behavior of the worst kind. It shows contempt for the thousands of people who laid out their money and sacrificed their time to see you perform. Those people made the effort. Where was your effort? The sound in the audience was, by all accounts, good. Maybe on stage it wasn’t great, but is that any reason to disappoint thousands of fans and admirers? You made a crack that the audience was like “an NPR convention” but the people I know who were there said the audience was lively and loud. But even if the audience had sat on their damn hands and kept their mouths glued shut, is that any reason to walk off stage? Some audiences are harder to please than others. Deal with it. There was apparently some sort of disagreement with “a shirtless fan” in the front. If he was that bad, you could have had security escort him out. There was talk that you didn’t like the ubiquitous cell phones that were snapping pictures and videos of the show. Well, I hate to break this to you but that’s all part of freedom in the 21st century. Look up the word “ubiquitous” and realize that this is how it is, and there’s no going back. The same night you did this, Justin Bieber vomited on stage and then rushed off. He came back out a few minutes later, apologized, joked with the audience and finished his damn show. I never thought I would say that Jack White could learn something from Justin Bieber, but there you go.

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and who may be willing to put this aside as just a really bad night for Jack White. But you need to give them a reason. Your failure to explain why you did what you did just shows the contempt in even greater clarity.

Best wishes,
The Disappointed.

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-

The Listening Post: June 2010

Summer begins with new music.

  • Stone Temple PilotsStone Temple Pilots. It’s been many years since the Pilots were last heard from on Shangri-La-Dee-Da, but they haven’t missed a beat. The band members stayed active, with Scott Weiland joining the dysfunctional crew of Velvet Revolver and the rest of the Pilots forming Army of Anyone with former Filter singer Richard Patrick. The Army of Anyone album sounded close enough to STP that it was clear the former Pilots were keeping their chops up, and Weiland brought the same melodic skill that elevates the Pilots to Slash, Duff, and Company. The result of keeping their hands in and playing to their strengths is that the new, eponymous STP album sounds a lot like the same band you’ve always known. If you like STP (and I do), you’ll like the album. If you think they’re a pack of posers, the new album won’t change your mind. The time off wasn’t all beneficial. This is their least impressive album since their overrated début, Core. Only “Between The Lines,” “Dare If You Dare,” “Fast As I Can,” and “Maver” are really top-flight material, worthy of being included with the songs from Purple or Tiny Music. Tracks like “Huckleberry Crumble,” “Hickory Dichotomy,” “Hazy Daze,” and “Bagman” are strictly filler material, and “Cinnamon” sounds amazingly like an outtake from Rooney’s second album. The rest of the tracks fall somewhere between the filler and the fantastic. They’re better than most of what you hear on the radio today, but still a far cry from the best work of the band. Hopefully, now that the band is ironing out the kinks on the road and in the studio, the next album will be a return to their best form.
    Grade: B
  • Sea Of CowardsThe Dead Weather. Jack White’s workaholism has generated yet another Dead Weather album, their second within a year. The first album was a triumph of feel and sound, with a fascinating vocal and lyrical interplay between Alison Mosshart and Jack White. (The world’s longest review of Horehound is here.) It was startling in how different it sounded. The second album loses that advantage of surprise. It sounds like the first album and while it has some songs that are as good or better than anything on the début, it also has several tracks that don’t measure up. There’s nothing as good as “Treat Me Like Your Mother” on Sea of Cowards, but “Die By The Drop,” “Gasoline,” “No Horse,” and “Jawbreaker” outshine almost everything else off Horehound. Unfortunately, that’s where it ends. “Blue Blood Blues” and “The Difference Between Us” are very good, but much of the rest sinks into mediocrity. “I’m Mad” suffers from the worst phony laugh since Phil Collins tried to sound menacing on Genesis’s “Mama,” and “Old Mary” is a bizarre (and dreadful) spoken word rip of the Hail Mary prayer. The big problem with the Dead Weather is that the distorted heavy industrial/noise sound of the band doesn’t lend itself to repeated listens. It’s impressive when you are listening to it and digesting it, but it’s not something you go back to. I genuinely like the Dead Weather, but I’m really starting to miss The Raconteurs and The White Stripes.
    Grade: B
  • Third Man Records Single Releases 2009Various Artists. This 2-LP (that’s vinyl, kids) from Jack White’s record label, Third Man Records, collects all the singles they released in 2009 as well as singles that were recorded in 2009 but released early this year. It’s a mixed-bag, but there’s a lot in it that’s very good. There are several Dead Weather singles, including a very good cover of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” and a great cover of “A Child Of A Few Hours Is Burning To Death,” by the very obscure ’60s garage rock/psychedelic band the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. There’s also a spontaneous blues track White wrote and recorded for the It Might Get Loud documentary, that sounds like it was made up on the spot (it was). Jack White is all over these songs, playing drums on some, piano on others, and singing with the Dex Romweber Duo on their songs. Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, the Greenhornes/Raconteurs rhythm section, also appear on several tracks. There’s some junk on the record. Mildred And The Mice (rumor has it that it’s Jack White’s wife, Karen Elson) has two completely unlistenable songs about dead vermin that I assume are meant to be a joke, but they’re not funny. There’s a track where the astronomer Carl Sagan has his voice Auto-Tuned into a sing-song monologue about the cosmos. More problematic, Rachelle Garniez’s sole song, “My House of Peace” has great music behind a voice that alternates between a sweet, breathy soprano and a slurred, drunken mumble, sometimes in the same line. The Black Belles make an interesting attempt at the garage rock classic “Lies,” but the song lacks power, Transit’s ’70s soul-style “C’mon and Ride” is pretty much a put-on. But then there’s the good: Dan Sartain’s Tom Waits-ish jazz blues, Dex Romweber’s howling guitar stomp, Wanda Jackson’s shredding Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and Johnny Kidd’s “Shaking All Over,” the Smoke Fairies’ haunting folk blues, Transit’s “Afterparty” which begins as smooth soul and ends as a raveup, the Black Belles’ Dead Weather meets the Shangri-Las “What Can I Do?” And for those so inclined, there are two spoken word pieces from music scenester BP Fallon, who offers a solemn meditation called “Fame #9” about the pitfalls of being famous and a Jack White-conducted interview where he reminisces about everything from seeing Chuck Berry in New York to the nature of blues. He also “sings” a really interesting track called “I Believe In Elvis Presley.” It’s a fascinating collection, and a good glimpse into the mind of Jack White. This is truly alternative rock.
    Grade: B+
  • A Little Madness To Be FreeThe Saints. This 1984 album finds Australia’s The Saints leaving in the dust any trace of the punk band that released three classic albums in the late 1970s. That’s not necessarily a problem since other bands with punk roots (The Replacements, for example) managed to leave punk behind and still do high-quality work. That’s not really the case here, though. While the album starts strongly with three very good tunes (“Ghost Ships,” “Someone To Tell Me” and “Down the Drain”) the rest of the album sinks into a midtempo malaise that makes for a listless listening experience. Some of these songs, like “It’s Only Time,” “Imagination,” and “Walk Away,” aren’t bad but they’re far from compelling. The rest of the album never rises above the blandly mediocre with the worst offender being “Photograph,” which is burdened with the type of maudlin string arrangement that’s supposed to indicate depth of feeling but only sounds like Muzak. The Saints would rebound from this with the classic All Fools Day, but while there’s not much on this album that’s genuinely awful, there’s even less that’s genuinely fresh and exciting.
    Grade: C
  • Time Fades AwayNeil Young. This album was called “the worst I ever made” by Neil Young. And this was after he released Re-Ac-Tor, Trans, and Everybody’s Rockin’. Young holds this album in such low regard that he included none of the songs on his Decade compilation and still has not released the album on compact disc. All of this just goes to show that Neil Young is not necessarily the best judge of his own material. Yes, Times Fades Away is so loose and rough it brings new meaning to the word “ramshackle,” but it is this ragged weariness that gives the album so much strength. Recorded during the tour for Harvest, the album that put Young all over AM radio, this is about as far away from “Heart Of Gold” as you can get. The sweet singer/songwriter country leanings of Harvest are replaced here with a bone-shaking, toxic stew of distorted guitar and vocals that don’t crack so much as they shatter. This album is really more like a live version of Young’s harrowing junkie tales from Tonight’s The Night than they are anything Young had released up to this point. The vocals are all over the place, the music is dense and distorted, the subject matter is dark, and the album is a powerhouse. It’s ugly, but it’s art.
    Grade: A-

Horehound, by The Dead Weather

m61363pa3g8Move 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

Consolers Of The Lonely, by The Raconteurs

Consolers of the LonelyBack in 2006, the White Stripes’ Jack White, solo artist Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler released Broken Boy Soldiers, the soundtrack of four immensely talented friends hanging out and writing and recording music.

Soldiers was a gem of an album. It clocked in at about 35 minutes, full of tight performances and gritty work. Along with Pearl Jam’s eponymous disc, it was one of the great records of 2006.

Two years and one White Stripes album later, they have returned with a more serious effort. Consolers Of The Lonely is the band recording in a professional studio (as opposed to Brendan Benson’s attic), and taking the time to write songs. The result is the best album of 2008 so far and, barring a miracle, the best album of 2008 when the calendar rolls around to January of 2009.

While Soldiers was a great, loose recording by four friends, Consolers is the sound of an actual band firing on all cylinders. Soldiers sounded like a side project for the musicians involved; Consolers sounds like a mission statement.

Where the songs on the first album sounded, in some cases, like sketches and ideas, the songs here sound like they’ve been crafted with loving hands. The fact that at this point in time both White and Benson seem to be in the zone where everything they touch turns gold certainly helps.

The album starts with some of the same looseness of the first album. There is studio dialogue, and a little girl’s voice asks to be told the story about the chicken. Then the title track comes roaring in like a typhoon of crushing riffs. More studio chatter as someone says, “We’ll doubletrack that.”

Over the course of the next 55 minutes, the Raconteurs open up the textbook about everything good in rock music. Three part harmonies; swapped lead vocals, guitar crunch, punchy horn sections, a mix of rockers and ballads, cool lyrics, diverse instrumentation, great melodies. If you are a fan of rock music in general, and not hung up on one genre or another (“I only listen to Metallica, man!”), then there is absolutely nothing on this album not to like. Every song should please the average rock music fan. It is more melodic than the White Stripes (thanks to Benson), heavier than Benson (thanks to White), and has a rhythm section most bands would kill for.

Benson and White complement each other as perfectly as Lennon and McCartney. Lennon was the literate rocker who wrote some great ballads; McCartney was the consummate romantic balladeer who wrote some brutally heavy rockers. Similarly, White brings the heavy to the Raconteurs while also writing great ballads and melodies, and Benson brings a golden ear for melody, a rich strong voice, and a willingness to turn the amps up to 11. Or even 12 in some places. Together, and all but one song are co-written by White and Benson, they have written the finest songs to appear on a rock album in years.

From the Sergio Leone feel of “The Switch and the Spur” to the riff-o-rama of “Salute Your Solution” and the title track to the neo-soul of “Many Shades Of Black” to the intense balladry of “You Don’t Understand Me” to the manic “Five On The Five” to the smartly chosen cover of Terry Reid’s “Rich Kid Blues” to the epic Gothic murder ballad/story-song “Carolina Drama,” Consolers Of The Lonely is as close to perfect as an album gets. Not only are there no bad tracks, there are no missteps at all. This is smart rock music, lovingly crafted, and meticulously recorded.

This is not simply a good album or even a great album. This is a classic album.