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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: The Kills – Blood Pressures [Domino]

A big welcome back to The Kills. It has been three years since their last record “Midnight Boom”, and while it certainly seems like a normal gap between albums, a lot has happened to the duo since then. Okay, well maybe not so much to Jamie Hince. He’s been spending a lot of time developing his relationship with supermodel Kate Moss to the point where they’ll be getting married in the near future. But running away from the paparazzi is work in and of itself, so that gives him something to do. Alison Mosshart is the real go-getter, joining up with Jack White and his motley band of dudes as frontwoman for The Dead Weather. They certainly attracted more attention than The Kills ever have, and they made not just one, but two albums and did lengthy tours to support each. At their rate of production, it wouldn’t have been surprising if The Dead Weather became a main project for all the members involved, leaving any other groups in the dust. Jack White is never content to sit in one place for too long though, and while there’s no apparent new Raconteurs record on the horizon, he’s got Third Man Records to run in the meantime. So Mosshart is free to do her own thing and her Kills bandmate Hince could probably use some extra cash to help pay for his wedding. They got together in Michigan, brought back the good old “Midnight Boom” production team, and recorded their fourth long player “Blood Pressures”.

The first 15 seconds of opening cut “Future Starts Slow” is exclusively drums of the loud and booming kind, something you wouldn’t normally hear from The Kills given their lack of an actual drummer. They’ve always had beats, be they from a drum machine or in pre-recorded samples, but never quite so vivid or dominant. Once Hince’s guitar comes grinding in and he launches into a dual vocal with Mosshart though, things immediately feel familiar in that Kills sort of way. The dark, almost witchy guitar fuzz of “Satellite” is eerily reminiscent of The Dead Weather, to the point where if you replaced Hince’s backing vocals with Jack White’s there really would be no difference. By way of contrast, “Heart Is a Beating Drum” is very distinctly a Kills song, though it stretches capacity to allow for little elements that made each of their first three albums stand on their own. The choppy, glitchy nature of “Midnight Boom”, complete with skittering percussion, meets the bluesy elements of “No Wow” and “Keep On Your Mean Side”. Unlike those previous records though, Mosshart’s lead vocal is a sheer force unto itself, definitely proving she’s learned a thing or two about her own abilities while off on her side project adventure. Amid washes of reverb, “Nail in My Coffin” starts off at a pretty strong pace, and it only picks up more steam as it works into a frenzy towards its conclusion. It also boasts one of the catchiest choruses on the entire record, even if a bunch of “oh oh ohs” aren’t the most lyrically above board.

Things on “Blood Pressures” start to take a hit right around “Wild Charms”, a Jamie Hince-fronted ballad that sits smack dab in the middle of the record. It brings the album to a screeching halt, but spares us from true torture by having a running time of a mere 75 seconds. Hince isn’t a bad singer, he just can’t seem to muster up the same passion and intensity that his partner in crime does every time she gets a microphone in front of her. Just because the song is a slow ballad doesn’t mean it needs to be sung like you just don’t care. The way you sell sweeping and slow sadness is best exemplified on “The Last Goodbye”, in which Mosshart dives into a deep croon that’s more 1950s than anything else. For The Kills it’s completely atypical, made even more so by the muted piano and sweeping strings. Just being dropped down towards the end of the record on its own little island is fascinating enough, but as it’s preceeded by a couple mediocre tracks that push it to stand out that much more. Though it fails to actively fit in with everything else, it does very much show that The Kills can be successful on a number of different levels beyond just moody, minimalist blues rock. Speaking of which, the spiky “You Don’t Own the Road” brings back that familiar Kills style, with Mosshart audibly sneering as Hince claws away at his electric guitar trying to wrangle it in. The record ends on a higher point with “Pots and Pans”, a track that essentially mixes everything that came before it in a bowl and stirs it up, It’s a plodding number appropriate to close out any record, and the use of a dusty acoustic guitar, drum machine and some signature electric makes it just a touch more refined than most everything else. Call it a testament to the subtle progression of the band over these four albums.

Though it might like to be, “Blood Pressures” is not quite the best Kills record to date. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince do sound refreshed and excited to be back, but despite that most of the songs lack the pop edge of their previous effort “Midnight Boom”. While it is slower and less marketable overall, the small adjustments the duo have made are worthwhile and justify their continued existence, Mosshart’s vocals stand out more than ever, dropping the hint that maybe Hince should keep quiet just a little more next time. The increased reliance on percussion or percussive elements is intriguing as well, particularly in the first half of the album where it practically rules over the catchiest and best songs. Finally there’s the songwriting, which has picked up significantly since the last album. Prior to now, The Kills have used mantras to burrow into your brain. The nonstop repetition of the same lines in “URA Fever” or “Tape Song” were fine because they were backed by equally memorable melodies. There’s a whole lot of verse-chorus-verse all over “Blood Pressures”, and it makes you want to pay closer attention to what they’re actually singing about instead of simply falling back to a hook. Good for The Kills for taking that progressive and more intelligent stance. It doesn’t quite clear them of the near crime scene that occurs for a couple moments in the later part of the record, but it makes them less grisly. The Kills may not win over any new fans as a result of this new album (outside of the ones showing up on account of The Dead Weather), but for those of us already familiar with their previous efforts, there’s certainly enough promise here to keep us coming back so long as they’re still willing to throw it out there.

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Album Review: The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards [Warner Bros/Third Man]

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.

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