Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Dead Weather - Sea of Cowards

It is no surprise that Jack White’s current musical output is via The Dead Weather; the band caused a storm when its line-up was announced and the first sounds of the debut album Horehound began to reach our airwaves. The involvement of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, Queens of the Stone Age multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita and the ever reliable Jack Lawrence from White’s ‘other band The Raconteurs was as delicious as any ‘super group’ (with the exception of Them Crooked Vultures) and the debut album (and supporting gigs) did not disappoint. So it is with a sense of trepidation that we venture toward the follow-up Sea of Cowards.

One of the big problems with The Dead Weather is that of style over substance. With the songs the band is superb; always interesting, brimming with ideas, textures and sounds, all with a growing familiarity that defines the core sound. The risk here is that the second album was rushed and like The Raconteurs fate, things were stretched just a little too far. A promising debut never transformed into a lucrative endeavour to stand the test of time, and with White’s attention span the band is doomed to be rejected for ’new’ projects. But for now The Dead Weather is an important outlet for White and Mosshart who don’t seem to be able to get things together with their respective ’day jobs’. Sea of Cowards proves this serendipity.

As with the debut, when The Dead Weather is good, it is very very good. From the dirty buzzing guitars of opener Blue Blood Blues, one of only a few songs featuring White on lead vocals - for the most he hands the microphone to Mosshart - this sets the scene by fusing space-aged keyboards with clanking tin-pot percussion. Typical of many songs, there is no discernable chorus; instead relying on recurring themes. Conversely Hustle and Cuss is just one big chorus, this time with Mosshart, a delicious bass line and more pulsating keys. The pace quickens for a quick instrumental followed by a duel vocal scream-fest finale. Great start.

The Difference Between Us and I’m Mad could be one song in two distinct movements. That said, the latter has prog-rock aspirations of its own, switching from a military style drum dance loop to a superb musical interchange led by a central riff and more of the ever determined AM on vocal duties. Another huge guitar/vocal chorus is the core of Die By The Drop with added piano and JW on backing. Then comes one of the highlights: I Can’t Hear You has Mosshart delivering a very passable White impression and a great example of everything working well together.

Issues plague the second half of Sea of Cowards. Gasoline, even with a solid organ arrangement, is a bit of everything else, self-indulgent and ideas without a clear thought. Looking at the Invisible Man is horrible song writing and lacks a much needed structure and Jawbreaker feels like nothing new. But No Horse, with its 70s soft rock feel, meshing into thrash guitars then back to lazy riff, is mostly well judged. And as expected, the most interesting song is left to last. Old Mary starts with White in demented preacher mode and unfolds like a cult movie. It quickly descends into a wonderful blend of piano, guitars, static and odd sampling. A great ending.

Sea of Cowards is more consistent than Horehound. That said, the core songs from the debut (Hang You From The Heavens, Treat Me Like Your Mother and I Cut Like a Buffalo) remain the best from the project so far. Some of Sea of Cowards is very close, and as a whole it is arguably more focused, better musically, definitely darker and more involved, but it remains the flip-side of an intriguing coin. The sporadic nature of the song writing gives an improvised edge without making the whole thing sound thrown together and he duo of White and Mosshart share vocal duties and compliment each other perfectly. Backed up by Fertita and Lawerence, the band remains a strange, spontaneous and wonderful collaboration.
-- CS

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