The Dead Weather Sea Of Cowards(Third Man Records) Buy it from Insound
Maybe a day or two after Sea Of Cowards came out I was listening to it in the car with my brother while we were on our way somewhere. At points in songs, he would involuntarily check the screen on my iPod, just surveying song titles, possibly wondering if we were listening to a different band. Maybe three songs in he asked, “What do you think of this?”
I told him, “I think this sounds like the record Jack White’s been trying to make for a long time.” My brother seemed to understand and agree.
As long as I’ve been listening to The White Stripes, I’ve been at odds with how I feel about Jack White as a musician and it’s not necessarily his fault. Once the Stripes broke out as a significant and distinct presence in popular music, they became a “White” hype of sorts, their red-and-white touch pure gold from an industry standpoint and the contributive factor to a small creative awakening in music. White Blood Cells, Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan are destined to become classic albums, because A). they’re good but B). also because they were blown up and played out, their importance possibly exaggerated to some extent. In the eyes, and ears, of anyone with a record collection and a keyboard, Jack White was accredited to be this very original and new voice coming out of an otherwise tired music scene. This claim has validity, but that may have worked against him to some extent.
It’s difficult to match the hype to the man himself, a lone guitarist seemingly stifled by his somewhat limited drummer, Meg. And, though the Stripes' records have their flashes of brilliance, how far can you really take a two-manned unit already handicapped by a second half that’s passable? It wasn’t surprising in the least when White went quartet with The Raconteurs, exploring the opportunities that come along with more components to use.
With The Dead Weather, though, there’s an almost one-upmanship to White’s role as a drummer, (seems like kind of a “fuck you” to Meg), and this gothic blues approach that he’s inhabiting with co-Dead Weather-er, Alison Mosshart. White equally splits vocal duties with Mosshart, enough so that they almost sound like the same singer, and the bluesy disposition, as if White didn’t have that before, is threatening. With first song, Blue Blood Blues, White claims, “Drippin’ blue blood from my wrist/I don’t need to resist/Yeah, all the neighbors get pissed when I come home/I make ‘em nervous.” It’s this sort of boastful taunt that recalls Diddley or B.B. King, a form of Bad To The Bone conjuring and conjecture of legend and it makes you wonder if The Dead Weather is White’s attempt at being something other than a figure in red-and-white, (if, of course, The Raconteurs isn’t).
Sea Of Cowards comes less than year after its predecessor, Horehound. With Queens of the Stone Age member Dean Fertita and Raconteur Jack Lawrence, White and Mosshart deliver a soulful and muck-heavy jam record that’s hard not to appreciate. Once the fuzzy low end of Blue Blood Blues transitions into the funk-laden Hustle And Cuss, you’re sold. At least I was, especially with What’s The Difference Between Us, its synthesized dread building into a raw and bass thick rock section that basically envelops you in its sonic swamp. Mosshart channels Grace Slick to some extent, but it works and only enhances Sea Of Cowards’ allegiance to 60s/70s blues rock.
Flanked by the cut-and-paste collage of I’m Mad and the slow energy of I Can’t Hear You, Die By The Drop stands out as the album’s single, sounding the most polished and composed in spite of its intensity. Gasoline is very strange and very cool, its odd stride and bumping organ subjected to string bending blasts and Mosshart pushing her throat as far as it can go. The straightforward rocker No Horse leads into filler track Looking At The Invisible Man, which is more of an outline of a song that seems reason enough to riff on the song’s title and jam a little.
Jawbreaker is the album’s last real moment to shine before Old Mary, which is an odd variation on the Hail Mary that seems requiem-like and sullen. With melancholic piano keys pushed with purpose, the phrase “Now until the moment of your last breath” is repeated to the song’s end. It’s basically a joke with a grim hook.
Though Sea Of Cowards benefits from its grime in some ways, especially in the way that White is clearly entertaining some new area of creative freedom, you do wonder if The Dead Weather rushed this one out, forgoing refinement in favor of being stripped down and loud. I do believe that Sea Of Cowards represents somewhat of a watermark for White in terms of his vision and the music he wants to make, but as White’s brag and Mosshart’s brash seem to overpower some of the album’s best moments, maybe persona is the problem.
In the meantime, Sea Of Cowards sounds like the record Jack White’s been trying to make for a long time. Whatever he does next will probably sound that way, too.