When Jack White accuses The Black Keys of ripping off his sound, I have to agree with the man. The White Stripes–and only The White Stripes–are responsible for bringing back the rawness to some seriously over-cooked rock-and-roll at the turn of the century and every band after only followed suit.
Unfortunately, the distinction today is hardly relevant. On White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, he continues to inch away from the iconic, slapdash rock formations the Stripes made so cool over a decade ago. His charm is still in rock and roll, but seeping in are the sounds of instruments discovered in a Nashville garage sale: fiddles, mandolins, a pedal steel guitar, old Synthesizers, a harp–even a bass guitar. Slathered on top all that is White’s own contemplations of age and abandoned love.
Lazaretto opens with the Blind Willie McTell song, “Three Women,” a salute to the artists whose sound White has borrowed from. The organ pumps and the piano pounds as White divides his time between a redhead, a blonde and brunette. The album’s title track exhibits the classic Jack White guitar sound. Sludge slides down the fretboard and a piercing solo releases goosebumps up and down the body.
By the third track, “Temporary Ground,” all memories of White’s signature sound start to dither. The song, a duet with Lillie Mae Rische, who plays fiddle and mandolin on the record and is part of White’s touring band, hearkens back to the time of Cold Mountain. In the Civil War-era movie White plays Georgia, a poor wandering musician with a high-pitched down south whine. White remains in time and character for the regular ol’ country tune and darnit if it ain’t the catchiest melody on Lazaretto.
When The White Stripes disbanded in 2011 it was sad news for fans, and even more so for White, who had worked so efficiently under their self-assigned limitations. For his first solo album, the fair, but forgettable Blunderbuss, White enlisted the help of neighboring musicians and two full bands to fill the void.
During the recording of Lazaretto, the doors of Third Man Studios never closed. We hear White laboring over each transition, time change and layered track. It’s a new frontier for the man who made every effort to make music on the fly, from the gut and with little back-tracking. The songs are all carefully constructed, sometimes with excellent results, sometimes with an over-attentiveness that bloats the sound.
Nothing can replace the excitement of records done in one take with everyone playing right there in the room and a bit of fuzz invading the corners. Jack White understands this, but on Lazaretto, which he worked on for over a year, he allowed the new songs to simmer. Mostly, he benefits, but White, who also plays in The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, seems to be searching in the dark for a sound to call his own.
Dusty piano notes flutter from the old saloon on “Alone In My Home.” “Lost feelings of love that hover above me,” White repeats with a steady Nashville twang pinching each last note. “That Black Bat Licorice” has the knee-jerk puncture of the White Stripes and on “Would You Fight For My Love?” White rips into an operatic crunch. The song creeps through the forests of jilted love along a thumping piano. “I’m getting better at becoming a ghost,” White sings with crackling despair, before the chorus blows up.
One of Lazaretto‘s best songs is the one without vocals, “High Ball Stepper.” A lucid arrangement quells around thorny stabs of guitar and the nervous hooting of some luckless owl. It’s the most psychedelic song White has done and one hopes there’s more of this to go around.