Jack White is a music-making machine. He’s probably not taken a single day off in the last few years. Between The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and his newest project The Dead Weather, it’s been an endless cycle of touring and recording. Given that the new Dead Weather album comes out a mere 10 months after their debut “Horehound” and that it follows a tour supporting that record, both White and his bandmates’ commitment to this project is nothing short of impressive. Of course this band isn’t built around Jack White, even if he’s the one generating most of the attention. Alison Mosshart of The Kills technically leads this crew of misfits, and White sits back on drums while Jack Lawrence and Dean Fertita shred on guitar. In a band where the sound is largely influenced by classic rock and blues music, one could even argue that White’s role is the least important. At least the music doesn’t sound that way.
As an introduction to The Dead Weather, “Horehound” served as a great introduction to their sound and proved to be an even better showcase for Mosshart, who always seemed to maintain a semi-subdued state on past Kills albums. Now having to compete with writhing guitar riffs, she proved she could hold her own in the boys club and that resulted in a surprisingly solid, but not exactly jaw-droppingly great debut. On their new album “Sea of Cowards”, the pressure ramps up in dramatic fashion. The guitars are heavier and sharp as knives. Mosshart does backflips on her vocals that give the impression of a deeply tortured soul. All the while White acts almost as her foil, chirping in on backing vocals for a number of tracks, or simply trading/doubling up on verses and choruses for tracks like “Hustle and Cuss” and “I’m Mad”. White’s microphone presence has increased compared to “Horehound”, yet the focus on Mosshart is deeper and more established than ever and she claims the spotlight like it was invented for her.
Where the strength in the overall performance of these songs has increased, the actual tracks themselves are weaker than those on their debut. A few of the songs primarily on the second half of the album are purposely designed to blend into one another, and occasionally it makes for an additional challenge of figuring out exactly when that takes place. There’s also a number of more experimental arrangements this time around, most of which wind up being either distracting or turn a potentially good song into a flat one. Closing track “Old Mary” is, among other things, Jack White’s odd riff on the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer, with slightly different wordplay that’s spoken for the first half and winds up on some strange semblance of an actual song for the second. Other times it’s an oddly placed keyboard that weaves through the track. And though the vocals may be generally impressive, Mosshart or White may take them in an ill-conceived direction that lessens the impact of a chorus or leaves a track with no impact at all. Still, there are a few songs that work like gangbusters from every angle. First single “Die By the Drop” is surprisingly good, as is opening track “Bad Blood Blues”. If all the tracks on the record were as good as those two, “Sea of Cowards” would be in much better shape.
The great news is that once you dig through the 35 minutes of sludge and non-traditional arrangements that “Sea of Cowards” has to offer, you’ll hopefully be happy with the end product. The small tweaks that have been made between this album and the last one both help and hinder matters on equal levels, so really things are neither better nor worse than they were going in. The tension and pace are amped up in an effective way, along with Mosshart’s singing, it’s just too bad the rest of the material isn’t quite there to fully support it. As a volatile mood piece though, this record clearly knows what it’s doing. Take from that what you will when trying to decide if “Sea of Cowards” is worth your time and money, but otherwise consider this a light recommendation.