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Tag: blues

Album Review: Jack White – Blunderbuss [Columbia/Third Man]

The ever-evolving career of Jack White remains a fascinating one. After his meteoric rise to fame as one half of The White Stripes, he suddenly became unsettled when his bandmate and ex-wife Meg decided to shut the project down. The reason given was that Meg began to suffer from “acute anxiety,” known to many as stage fright, and for health reasons no longer wanted to perform. How true that was we’ll likely never know, but she has been true to the idea of never performing again. But that destruction of The White Stripes sent Jack spiralling into some new and different projects. He had already been dabbling in side projects with his friend Brendan Benson as they formed The Raconteurs. As he turned his focus in that direction, in 2009 he was also sucked into the atmosphere of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and became one of the co-founders of The Dead Weather. Right around that time White also began building his own record label, Third Man, into a much bigger presence by establishing a store and production offices in Nashville. He signed and worked with a number of artists on one-off records, including country legend Loretta Lynn, The Black Belles, Conan O’Brien and even Insane Clown Posse. He’s established himself as a workaholic, and given the way he moves from one project to another, probably something of an ADD musician.

One afternoon last summer while waiting for RZA to show up at his home studio for another one-off collaboration, White decided to make the most of his time and play around with some song ideas. As with so many other things he’s done recently, it slowly developed into a full length solo effort, which he’s called Blunderbuss. Does it sound like what you’d expect from a Jack White solo project? Well, yes and no. One look at the guy’s entire catalogue and you’ll notice a distinct variety that pushes back against being confined to a certain type or genre. The earliest White Stripes recordings were electric guitar-intense blues dirges. Their last couple albums played around with pianos and a host of other instruments quite a bit more, and were decidedly pop-inspired. Great as all that was, White’s work with other musicians and other bands hasn’t been nearly as fruitful. Being in bands with other superstar musicians yanks away some of his responsibility (and some might say burden), which is why his records with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather sometimes missed the mark or came off as mainstream pandering. That’s not to say his friends and the democratic group dynamic were dragging him down. White tends to work with very talented musicians, but as with any group with the word “super” in front of it can tell you, that doesn’t necessarily make things better. It’s not like many will argue that when Neil Young teams up with Crosby, Stills and Nash he’s better than when he’s alone or with Crazy Horse. Some artists are best when left to their own devices. White seems to be one of those people.

So in this blustery post-White Stripes landscape, Blunderbuss steadily ushers in the next phase of Jack White’s music career. Considering how much he was responsible for in The White Stripes, making the transition to an official solo artist should be no problem whatsoever. He tackles it with all the grace and aplomb you might expect; well thought-out rock songs that are slightly different from his more bluesy past, but with plenty of variety to try and prove he’s more than a one trick pony. Opener “Missing Pieces” has a mellotron base and some guitar for added spice, yet it feels eerily reminiscent of a White-fronted track in The Raconteurs. “Sixteen Saltines”, by contrast, is a catchy guitar-heavy rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a record like Icky Thump. Having dabbled in a few other genres thanks to his collaborations, songs like “Love Interruption” and the title track come across as Loretta Lynn-inspired alt-country, complete with slide and acoustic guitars. He gives a big nod to soul and R&B pioneer Little Willie John by covering his bouncy number “I’m Shakin'”, then plays off those sonic influences on songs like “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” and the rousing finale of “Take Me With You When You Go.” There’s such a great mixture of instruments used across the album, especially piano and slide guitar, that the hope of some crazy, blistering electric guitar solos becomes less and less with each passing minute. The ending of “Freedom at 21” is about the closest White comes to his old, old self, and even those fleeting moments peter out in disappointment. He’s a much deeper and nuanced person these days, and is out to prove he’s more than just a very talented guitar player and songwriter.

Speaking of songwriting, that’s about the one thing in White’s life that hasn’t changed with time. His favorite topic has pretty much always been women, and on Blunderbuss that’s no different. Throwing around plenty of psychological theories without any real knowledge of psychology in general, it would seem that Jack has issues with the female gender. This pointed article does a great job of summing it up: “What White really seems to dislike is when women choose their own boxes. He’s a famous control freak, and in his songs, women are constantly threatening his control, forcing him into playing the role of victim. His response? Vitriol.” You can hear it on “Missing Pieces,” when he sings about a woman figuratively amputating his arms and legs. On “Freedom at 21,” she’s addicted to technology, where, “Two black gadgets in her hand are all she thinks about.” White famously doesn’t own a cell phone, and while he’s not averse to things like computers and the Internet, it’s apparent why he’d be upset with the woman in the song. Perhaps most telling of all is “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” in which he makes somewhat veiled references to ex-wife and ex-bandmate Meg. As he took on her last name when they got married and never changed it back, he sings, “You’ll be watching me, girl, taking over the world/I’ll be using your name.” Towards the end he also goes on about letting the “stripes unfurl” and how he’ll be “gettin’ rich singin’ poor boy.” For all its lighthearted ukulele playfulness, some of those words have a real potential to cut deep, especially if you’re Meg. Neither party is commenting on them, so we’re left guessing exactly how pointed they’re intended to be.

In spite of some of the issues that Blunderbuss has both lyrically and sonically, Jack White is too good and too professional a musician to turn in something with his name plastered all over it and have it be subpar. At least with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather he had other band members to share the burden and simultaneously take credit for weaker elements. Here his strength lies in his ability to come up with compelling and catchy melodies while simultaneously shifting perspectives to keep us guessing. The same could be said about his personal life and affectations. White tends to enjoy lying to the press, and we’re never entirely sure how sincere he’s being with his lyrics either. What might otherwise appear to be maniacal or misogynistic could just be the way he wants to play it. At least he’s consistent about it. This record deals with the topic of loss virtually from start to finish, with girls, romance and relationships in general all intertwined inside that web. It’s true that they are messy, challenging and often disappointing in the end. Yet we put ourselves through all that because the good outweighs the bad in the end. The same can be said about Blunderbuss. It might not be as good as your average White Stripes record, and the intense guitar solos are seriously lacking, but White goes a long way towards proving that when left to his own devices, he’s still one of the sharpest tools in any musical shed.

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Album Review: Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light [Fat Possum]

Jason Pierce has Lived. He’s earned that capital “L” because of the multitude of things he’s experienced over the course of his 46 years. When he formed Spacemen 3 30 years ago, the band’s motto was: “Take drugs to make music to take drugs to.” He was true to his word there, and that mentality largely carried over when he started Spiritualized some years later. Things went well for awhile, and Spiritualized hit their high point in 1997 with the release of Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space. It was somewhere around 2005 when life began to turn upside down for Pierce. Not feeling well, he checked into the hospital where doctors diagnosed him with double pneumonia. He was in the Accident & Emergency ward for quite awhile getting better, hooked up to all sorts of machines and even reportedly died a couple times. After such a harrowing experience, he fleshed out the partly recorded Songs in A&E, with quite a few allusions to death and sickness. Things were fine for awhile, that is until last year, when Pierce went to the doctor for a routine check-up and found out his liver was quickly failing. Years of drug abuse had taken its toll, and he was rushed into treatment almost immediately. Instead of going the more traditional route towards healing, he chose an experimental drug treatment that would be far less harsh on his body. Confined to his house during that time, he chose to write and record the next Spiritualized album. The result is Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and it’s quite possibly the best thing Pierce has put together in a decade and a half. It would seem that any sort of drugs, legal or illegal, are the Perfect Prescription to making a great Spiritualized record.

If you’ve ever taken the time to give a close listen to any Spiritualized album, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the project. The album titles Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space and Amazing Grace are equally great descriptors of the band’s sound, which is a mixture of psychedelia, gospel and blues. Seven albums in, you’d think the sounds and thematics might change. In some ways they have, with certain records emphasizing certain aspects more than others. For example, Songs in A&E had a fragility and precarious emotional core to it that wasn’t present on any of the band’s other albums. Pierce also used that record to focus more on religion and death than usual, and his other favorite topics of drugs, girls and redemption took on a less prominent role. Sweet Heart Sweet Light could well be considered a return to normalcy, but Spiritualized have never been a truly normal band. The reason they’ve been able to get away with maintaining a modestly even sonic keel is because there’s not really anybody else that sounds similar. Yet like all of the band’s past efforts, this new one has small qualities that help it to stand out from the rest of the catalogue. Most specifically, Spiritualized has never sounded more pop-friendly. First single “Hey Jane” is one of the catchiest things Pierce has ever come up with, even as it’s about three times longer than your average pop song. Around halfway through it reaches a breaking point, devolving into nearly nothing before coming back faster and more powerful than ever. That’s another distinctive quality of this album: it’s nearly the antithesis of Songs in A&E by exuding a confidence and strength that feels refreshing. It’s almost as if living through double pneumonia and fighting for his liver pushed him into treating every day like it could be his last. One gets the impression that Pierce would rather go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

A close lyrical analysis of Sweet Heart Sweet Light somewhat tempers the idea that this record is indeed life-affirming. “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/cause only the living can feel the pain,” he sings at the start of the soulful “Little Girl”. That sentiment is tempered by the song’s chorus though, which advises the titular girl to make the most of the time she’s given. On the epic and orchestral “Too Late” amid warnings about how love can break your heart, Pierce confesses in a moment of pure clarity that he, “Won’t love you more than I love you today/and I won’t love you less but I’ve made my mistakes.” The tenderness and devotion are touching, even when faced with the reality that we’re relentlessly flawed human beings. Shades of Neil Young circa “Heart of Gold” or The Rolling Stones circa “Wild Horses” are all over the ballad “Freedom”, with the plodding piano and acoustic guitar pairing providing a beautiful base for a chorus that begins with the relatable, “Freedom is yours if you want it,” but ends with the somber, “Made up my mind/to leave you behind/cause you just don’t know what to feel.” Where this record truly rings triumphant though is in the nearly 8-minute finale of “So Long You Pretty Thing”. Not only does it have the makings of an exhilarating torch song, but like “Hey Jane” it has one of the most memorable refrains of a Spiritualized track to date. As it begins its slow fade out, the glorious chorus still going, you kind of get the impression that it could have gone on for another five minutes like that and wouldn’t be any worse for the wear.

Given Pierce’s temprament and health battles the last several years, it’s worth mentioning that Sweet Heart Sweet Light might just be the last Spiritualized record. His liver is apparently fine now, or at least functional enough with the aid of drugs that he won’t die for a long time. Still, it’s been a rough decade so far, and maybe the next big bodily problem will be the one that finally does Pierce in. Let’s try not to be pessimistic and hope he finds a way to live another 46 years. But besides the physical problems though, Pierce has really started to appreciate the brilliance of his back catalogue. In the wake of touring around Songs in A&E, he was asked in 2009 to perform the Spiritualized classic Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space in its entirety at London’s Royal Festival Hall for an ATP event. Later that year, and months before that performance, a 3-disc Legacy edition of the record was released containing a wealth of demos and other odds and ends. Between compiling all that and performing what would ultimately become a handful of shows featuring that record, Pierce better understood what made it so special, beloved and praised. It pushed his own standards for making music higher as a result, and Sweet Heart Sweet Light is what he felt finally met those new expectations. Funny then that for most of the recording and mixing he was in a prescription drug-fueled haze that often left him mentally confused to the point where he kept calling the album Huh? because it was easier. If he’s this great while tripping on substances, you’ve almost got to wonder if health and clarity would help or hurt the final product. Either way, it’s also very possible Pierce will stop making music once he feels like he cannot top himself and contribute something truly great to the music world. With this new album being nearly a personal best and certainly one of 2012’s finest, one can only hope there’s so much more where this came from.

Spiritualized – Hey Jane

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Snapshot Review: Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery [XL/Hot Charity]

The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.

Willis Earl Beal – Evening’s Kiss

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Album Review: The Black Keys – El Camino [Nonesuch]

In many ways, bands should be restricted from releasing albums of new material during the month of December. That last month of the year is pretty strictly reserved for the holiday album, the live album or the compilation album, all of which make for good gift-giving or as soundtracks to your Christmas parties. It’s also very much a list-making time of year, where everyone takes stock of the music they heard in the 11 months prior and admits to their favorites. Put out your record of original material in December and risk not being included in year-end countdowns, either because they’re already written and published in advance or there’s not enough time to give your record enough listens for proper consideration. Exceptions will always be made though, speaking specifically to 2010 and Kanye West’s super late release of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. It was a year-ending blind side that essentially kicked the ass of virtually everything that came before it. A year later, do you think anyone regrets slotting that album at the top of their “Best of” list despite probably only hearing it a half dozen or so times? Sure it’s brilliant, and definitely Kanye’s most accomplished work to date, but is it “perfect”?

This year’s artist playing the late release game is The Black Keys with their seventh long player, “El Camino”. If you follow along with the details surrounding the recording of this album, you know the band entered guitarist Dan Auerbach’s new Nashville studio back in March and announced they’d completed the new record this past July. Apparently it takes close to six months to put a whole campaign together prior to an album’s release. That includes making a comedic promotional video starring Bob Odenkirk, setting up a hotline for people to call and coming up with your own viral music video. Admittedly, it’s a pretty smart and fun strategy to adopt, certainly better than a traditional album release. When you take such a novel approach, giving a little release date leeway is practically required, and better the first Tuesday in December than the last. The Black Keys have also been dealing with the “problem” of immense popularity. Their last album “Brothers” was a game changer for them, earning all kinds of radio airplay and higher billing on summer music festival lineups thanks to songs like “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You”, the latter of which was still blasting from car stereos this past summer, a year after that record’s release. Not a minute had gone by towards lowering the band’s visibility when they struck again with “El Camino”‘s first single “Lonely Boy” a couple months back. It continues the tradition of infectious blues-driven garage rock they’ve been feeding us steadily over the last 10 years.

Arguably one of the biggest changes and best moves The Black Keys have made in the last few years was recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their records. After producing their first few records entirely on their own, Danger Mouse first got behind the boards for 2008’s “Attack and Release”, which actually yielded moderate success and some radio airplay with singles like “I Got Mine” and the psychedelic “Strange Times”. Though a slight variation on the style they had established with their previous records, “Attack and Release” was ultimately a strong example of a band still largely within the clutches of a creative slump. The hip hop infused Blakroc certainly suggested there was more to the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney than previously believed, but the boys were also having some personal issues that fueled the sonic stagnation. After taking some time away from the band and pursuing other projects, they reconnected and rebuilt their relationship with one another. Their last album was titled “Brothers” to emphasize that they continue to love one another in spite of the difficulties they sometimes face. The record itself was also a bit of a challenge as well, but more in how it tackled preconceptions of the “Black Keys sound” and worked to revamp them. They had clearly learned something from their time with Danger Mouse and it showed both with slight twists on their style as well as a renewed energy that had been largely lost after 2004’s “Rubber Factory”. And while success certainly followed along with that, the record was still a bit clogged up with 15 tracks and a running time of nearly an hour. Sometimes careful editing and cutting the wheat from the chaff can be a good thing. Almost as if they’ve been listening to their critics, “El Camino” spans 11 tracks and 37 minutes, attempts to expand on the best elements of “Brothers” and appears to have forgotten that chaff even exists.

Given that “Tighten Up” was the big song that catapulted The Black Keys to a whole new level of popularity and it also happened to be the only track on their last record produced by Danger Mouse, the band sought to recreate that success across the entirety of “El Camino” by putting all of those elements together once again. The result is the band’s most energetic, poppy and generally fun record to date. Those concerned a buzzy earworm like “Lonely Boy” might be a lone standout needn’t worry. So many times on past records the band has tried to temper their approach by throwing a few quieter or more spacey psychedelic numbers into the mix, and more often than not those wind up being the weak spots. The only slow thing you’ll find on the new album comes courtesy of “Little Black Submarines”, which starts with just a plain acoustic guitar and some world-weary blues vocals, providing a nice respite from the ramshackle rock and roll of the first three tracks. The break only lasts a couple minutes though, because by the halfway point the electric guitars wake up with an intense fury that goes unrivaled on the rest of the record. Just because nothing else on the record slams quite as hard, don’t go thinking that the band’s fuzz pedal isn’t cranked up to 11 most of the time or that there’s not a whole lot of ballsy rock songs on “El Camino”. “Dead and Gone” hammers down a martial drum beat and then accents it with some xylophone, handclaps and a choir to back up Auerbach in the chorus. The choir and handclaps hold strong on “Gold On the Ceiling”, which incorporates some synths and has the chug of “Howlin’ for You” but plays it to more of a glam rock effect. The hard crunch of “Money Maker” has the heft and subject matter to soundtrack not only a million pole dances at your local strip club, but probably a couple dozen movie scenes in which some sexy girl character is introduced and you watch all the guys lower their sunglasses down their noses to get a better glimpse as she strolls by in slow motion. Yes, that scene happens in like half the movies released each year.

The second half of “El Camino” plays out a lot like the first, with plenty more riffage and uptempo numbers, though the use of the choir as backing vocals becomes far less prevalent. As the album works its way towards the finish line, there are moments that feel a little repetitive. “Hell of a Season” isn’t a bad song, but comes off almost like The Black Keys on autopilot. They’ve done songs like it before and will probably do songs like it again. The same can be said for the final two songs, “Nova Baby” and “Mind Eraser”, the latter of which might as well function exactly as its title suggests. The oft-repeated hook in that last song, and ultimately the last words spoken on the entire record are, “Don’t let it be over”. For something that started off so promising, by the time the full 37 minutes are up there’s this unerring sense that wrapping it up is probably a good thing. Basically the record teeters on the edge of becoming too long in spite of being one of the band’s shorter efforts. It’s that constant drive just hitting you over and over again with fuzzy guitars that pretty much tires you out. It is worth noting there are some fun second half bits. Carney gives his kit a severe lashing on “Sister”, which also happens to be one of the record’s bluesier cuts with a buzzing guitar and some sparkling keyboards snaking their way between the chords that make up the overall base melody. The light as a feather “Stop Stop” is a whole lot of fun as well, largely excelling thanks to some well-placed xylophone in the chorus. It’s a great late album reminder that the band does oh so much right on this record.

There’s a very good chance “El Camino” is the finest Black Keys record to date. To some of their most fervent supporters, i.e. all those “passionate” people that suddenly became aware of the band through “Brothers” and now call them “the new White Stripes”, this is the justification they’re looking for. Commercially speaking, there’s not a bad song on here. You could name virtually any track a single and it will do well on radio and in concert. That’s kind of the point, right? This is what the Black Keys wanted, or at least what their army of fans demanded of them. They are a better band because of this record, even if it distills their all-too-familiar sound and rather bland lyrics down to their core elements. This is the quintessential Black Keys album. Now that they’ve reached such a career peak, let’s hope they know what to do with it.

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