I know some of you have been awaiting this review for some time, and I have to admit I was intrigued at the prospect of Jack being freed from the confines of a two piece format.
The album was entirely composed and produced by White (real name John Anthony Gillis) and was released on White’s own Third Man Records (is he a cricket fan? Haha). Having been unimpressed with the Raconteurs/Saboteurs project he was involved with a few years ago, and while enjoying some of his song writing in the White Stripes, I have stated many times, I can’t fully appreciate music by a rock group bereft of a bass player. Drums and Bass. They don’t call the aforementioned the rhythm section for nothing. It is these components of a rock group that make you want to shake and move and generally get down and boogie, but I digress.
For fans of The White Stripes, this album bears little similarity to White’s output with said duo. For one thing he has a full backing band consisting of bass (yay), drums, piano, guitar, violin and many more. So without further ado, the music.
White’s vocals and guitar sound are at once his own and this will provide some comfort for White Stripes fans. “Missing Pieces” and “Sixteen Saltines” kick off the album with some nice bluesy riffing and keyboard sounds and are probably the most Stripes-esque of all the tracks. To be honest, the album takes a little while to really get going, but when it does, oh boy…White’s guitar soloing has improved out of sight and he makes some really inventive use of his octave pedal to achieve a sort of otherworldly blues sound. The drumming on the album is also an improvement over Meg’s work with the ‘Stripes. I know she deliberately played a sort of primal and simple part in the band but it’s refreshing to hear a drummer playing with competence and freedom in Whites compositions. He is as good a songwriter as ever and seems to have found an entirely new freedom in having several musicians at his disposal. The album is busy with several different instrumental sounds but never gets cluttered and frankly reaches some breathtaking musical highs. The prominence of Brooke Wagoner’s (and occasionally White’s) piano, eases into the album and becomes prominent by the fifth track “Blunderbuss” which also features lovely violin playing. In my opinion the piano is the undisputed instrumental hero of this album. It is deliberately slightly out of tune to achieve that ‘honky-tonk’ sound but it simultaneously reaches orchestral brilliance of epic proportions, and I struggle to think how the album would sound without it. The album has a definite zenith in the middle, with the brilliant tracks “Blunderbuss” and “Hypocritical Kiss” bringing you to the realization that White is an extremely talented songwriter and arranger and both these tracks are dragged to stratospheric heights by the brilliant piano parts.
Of course the album is peppered with other sounds, White’s own dirty guitar tone, Hammond organ, double bass, some great violin parts and almost every track features beautiful backing vocals. As a whole, the album is a sort of mish-mash of country rock, garage rock and psychedelia with some quirky, light-hearted instrumental moments as well. This is a happy album for the most part, reflecting White’s newfound enthusiasm for this more involved and less constricting group format. At times I was reminded of Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Byrds, Wings, The White Stripes, Gram Parsons and The Grateful Dead. It does NOT sound like a 2012 release and one hopes other bands will follow his lead. It’s an anomaly. It doesn’t fit. It’s wrong. And it’s brilliant.
It is great from the first note to the last fadeout, but the tracks that really made me smile with delight are the title track which is haunting, melancholy country rock with some fantastic steel guitar and string phrases, “Hypocritical Kiss” is a great, classic rock song with some freaky descending piano parts. The final track “Take Me With You When You Go” is a groovy, bouncy, slinky pop song that sounds akin to Gomez jamming on a Grateful Dead track, with the piano and White’s fuzzy guitar driving it along. The undoubted highlight for me is the brilliant “Weep Themselves To Sleep” which is an epic, sprawling track featuring some of the best piano phrases I’ve heard in a contemporary release for a long, long time and really showcases White’s prodigious composing and arranging talents. It’s an awe inspiring track and is the apex centrepiece of the album.
The production is terrific, and the deliberately out of tune piano and, on some tracks drums (“Freedom At 21” has a kick drum that is so detuned as to sound floppy!) work brilliantly. White has broken hallowed production laws and used the results to great effect. His guitar is gloriously dirty in places and there are also some lovely, clean acoustic guitar parts. The only (very minor) complaint is that the bass guitar is quite low in the mix (I guess he’s still warming to the idea of the inclusion of said instrument!)
Hard-core White Stripes fans may be put off by the extra instrumentation and relative compositional complexity, but the facts are, White’s arranging and composing have improved tenfold as has his guitar playing and singing. You can really hear his enjoyment at creating music in a band format and he sounds totally free and unbridled in this situation. He’s really taken a giant step into another league with this release and should now be considered one of the leading songwriters of his generation if he wasn’t already. And there’s bass!!!