2009 / Music

Review: Jack White’s The Dead Weather Yields Fearsome Guitar Thunder

White Stripes Frontman Unveils New Band

For too many years now, White Stripes mastermind Jack White has pushed his audience’s patience to the breaking point by always running away from himself.

Photo: Third Man Records/Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Third Man Records/Warner Brothers Records

Ever since his bizzaro vision of a basement-bred, blues-rock wailfest struck big in the 9/11-scarred music world, White has tried to duck his artistic strengths in favor of satisfying ambition. In his case, creative growth is highly overrated. While he might have indulged his Acuff-Rose fantasies with Loretta Lynn, mused about collaborations with Bob Dylan and pretended he’s Alex Chilton with his previously steady side band, the Raconteurs, White is just a balls-to-the-wall rawker by nature. When his music plays to his strengths — keeping it simple and loud — few contemporaries can make so much from such rudimentary building blocks.

To that end, White’s latest album bears out the genius of this strategy and proves how untapped his ingenuity remains — not that White doesn’t try. This record is the debut for White’s third contemporaneous band — the Dead Weather — and the disc “Horehound” heralds White’s most consistently hard-hitting cache of songs and performances since the White Stripes’ 2003 record, “Elephant.” The Dead Weather follows the identical Zeppelin-sized, bash-and-smash template the Stripes laid down, but the sounds and arrangements quickly breeze past what White can pull off by himself as well what he can extract from drumming bandmate Meg White. The new group has the potential to be his most fruitful and fearsome project yet.

With the White Stripes stuck in suspended animation and the Raconteurs on a break while co-frontman Brendan Benson readies a country music album, White assembled the Dead Weather after becoming inspired by some post-tour jam sessions with pals. While White might be the group’s big name and the one to whom the band owes for their bristling, guitar god swat sound, it’s the Kills’ Alison Mosshart who establishes herself as a super-powered presence behind the microphone.

With bangs permanently shielding her eyes and a voice of panting desperation akin to P.J. Harvey, Mosshart cultivates some seriously sexy mystique. As with the Raconteurs, White has in Mosshart someone who can share the limelight. But unlike Benson, she is an onstage force projecting charisma that rivals White’s own. Her voice is the emotional core at the center of the band’s volume maelstrom. (With White behind the drum kit, the group is rounded out by Raconteurs bassist “Little” Jack Lawrence and Queens of the Stone Age keyboardist Dean Fertita on guitar.) Mosshart’s contributions magnificently provide a distinct identity for the project.

For all those White Stripes haters clamoring for a bass player or a drummer with a bit more Bill Ward flare, “Horehound” is the record they’ve been yearning for. The combo bulks up the Stripes’ formula, fleshes out the intense, dirty sound with old-school keyboards and drum machines, but without sacrificing the raw power of the original duo. Best of all, Mosshart is a counterpart who can best knock the group out of White’s orbit and set the music revolving in new direction with a revved-up howl or cry.

She proves her allure with first single “Hang You From The Heavens.” The track is a slice of early ’60s sugary pop dragged, contorted and remade to fit into the post-punk world. Instead of mooning about unrequited love, Mosshart embodies a feminist archetype that indie-rock fans lust for. She diffidently dismisses and thrashes a wannabe suitor with equal parts disgust, frustration and barely concealed passion. The song’s sinister central riff was liberated from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, steamed up and let free. Equally unwieldly is White’s drumming style, which decimates cymbals while the rhythm section plunges into the melody. These guys don’t try to pretty-up love’s angst. Producer Phil Spector wanted his pop operas to project class and grandeur. The Dead Weather’s songs are melodramatic, but instead emphasize barroom, concussive might over any faux gentility.

Similarly savage is a cover of Dylan’s “New Pony,” transformed into a clumsy, loud revelation. It sizzles and sways with the loose, rowdy energy of the MC5. The quartet hit the downbeat with every ounce of outsized power the foursome can muster. Fertita and White play like the bastard sons of Jimmy Page. These guys want to overrun their listeners, intimidating and overwhelming them. It isn’t an attitude often employed on a Dylan song. Dylan prefers his lyrical rapier wit. The Dead Weather opts to play the music like they’re wielding a blues-stained club.

The music’s violent action continues on “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” where Mosshart strikes back against her paramour with a feeling more out of frustration than the derision she felt on “Hang You From The Heavens.” As she sings explodes into a full howl, a Stevie Wonder clavinet is turned to the dark side in the scramble of guitars and drum fills exchanging blows. White pipes up from behind the drum riser to lend Mosshart some moral support.

The most fascinating moments of “Horehound” are revealed when the group come the closest to self-parody. On “Rocking Horse,” the combo runs through an introductory guitar riff that clearly draws on the licks White used on “Seven Nation Army” and “The Hardest Button To Button” before taking on a Link Wray vibe. Even more curious is how the guitar playing on the creeping instrumental “3 Birds” takes its cues from the Edge. White shares the screen with the Edge and his idol Jimmy Page in an upcoming, guitar-specific documentary, “It Might Get Loud.” Perhaps the six-stringed discussions prompted White to reinvestigate U2’s catalog and guide this song to reflect the Edge’s galloping, effects-doused style. It doesn’t conform with White’s general preference for low-fi sounds. In fact, it’s just the opposite and that is what makes it so intriguing.

Attentive readers might point out the fact that these songs represent a reprieve from White’s forte. However, tracks like “3 Birds” are acceptable experiments, temporary diversions, from the lusty, amplifier slugfest we hear on most of “Horehound.” White isn’t out to prove he’s more than just a garage rocker. Instead, he and the band are just simply changing the pace. And White seems to be conscious of the formula that has made the White Stripes so successful, even though he steers away from it often on his outside work. As White told the Onion’s A.V. Club in 2007, he understands constriction and simplicity are at the heart of what makes the band so magnetic and explosive.

Now, White seems intent on grafting this concept to the Dead Weather and then tack his ambitious dalliances from this simple framework. It’s an inspired idea and one that works on “Horehound.” White has finally acknowledged and embraced his musical identity. Listeners should take notice.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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