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