The Dead Weather: “Horehound”

horehound

I can say with a care minimum of hyperbole that, since around 2001 or so, Jack White has more or less been rock and roll, period. He’s the guardian and juggler of so many old flames– blues, garage rock, Led Zeppelin stomp– it’s anyone’s guess as to where he finds the time, to say nothing of the hands. He’s rock, more than anyone else on the scene, but what he isn’t is some kind of revivalist. His blues doesn’t quite sound like it crawled out of the Mississippi Delta, and his garage rock clearly came out of the naughties, not the sixties. Everything he does– from his caterwauling rock with sisteir Meg to his boozy hell-raising with Loretta Lynn– sounds on one level authentic, and on another level like, well, a Jack White record.

He is, in a word, an auteur. He breathes his spirit into everything he touches– even if he happens to be handling a couple of drumsticks instead of his trusty ol’ guitar. Which is, of course, just what he does in the Dead Weather– his third band, created and announced so suddenly in the early part of 2009 that its mere existence caused quite a stir. Its makeup is already old news– Alison Mosshart of the Kills sings, there’s a Raconteur and a Queen of the Stone Age in the mix, and White directs the proceedings even as he bangs the hell out of his drum kit. Their debut album is called Horehound. And yes: It sounds like a Jack White record.

That said, it’s a Jack White record like no other. Livelier and more exciting than either of the Raconteurs’ albums– by a landslide– and rocking harder than any Stripes album outside of Icky Thump, Horehound is distinct from anything else White’s been involved with, while simultaneously picking up many of the threads that have always run through his work. This is where White and his companions rework the bluesy grit that has run through all of his music, re-imagining it within the context of the sleaziest, sludgiest side of 70s rock. There’s a bit of Led Zeppelin at their grimiest, a bit of the Rolling Stones at their most satanic. It’s all smoke and sex and swagger, devilishly and dirty and absolutely thrilling.

And, fascinatingly enough, it marks a new high point for White as a bandleader; in fact, it immediately renders the Raconteurs more or less pointless. The goal of that group was always for White to have a chance to front a real, working four-piece band, but the Dead Weather plays with tons more energy and charisma than that outfit ever did, sounding like they banged this album out quickly and spontaneously. White leaves his mark on the album on so many levels– his obsession with mariachi music slyly peaks through in “Rocking Horse,” and his bizarro humor and out-there tastes show up in his having Mosshart sing Dylan’s woman-hatin’ “New Pony”– but this is a full-band effort, and its great triumph is in how White, as the producer, brings out the best in his talented cast. Mosshart, in particular, sounds transformed; here she plays the role of the sexy, slightly sleazy seductress, more akin to Chrissy Hynde than the one-dimensional hipster schtick she does with the Kills. Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age keeps it bluesy at the right moments, unleashes nasty riffs when they’re needed, and knows when to hold back. White provides low, rumbling harmonies on a few numbers, and his drumming is, unsurprisingly, way more complex than Meg’s.

White relinquishes control– for the first time ever!– enough to let his bandmates put their own spin on this music, but, thankfully, he’s the one who shapes its vision. Even though he only writes one track by himself, his fingerprints are all over this thing, particularly in how he reshapes the past into his own image. He and Mosshart play around with the vocabulary of their musical inspirations– the lyrics are full of God and Satan and devil women and sin and sleaze– but White is smart enough to refashion them into something that isn’t actually demonic, but instead is deliciously stylish, seductive, and sly. This is a record where the style and the substance are nearly the same thing: Even when the songs don’t make much linear sense (and they rarely do), it’s all very evocative and compelling, because it’s written using language that we know. I’m not exactly sure what “I cut like a buffalo” means, but I do know that this album is a gutbucket of violence and dashed romance, sexual tension and burning anguish.

It’s music with depth and diversity, as well– note the oddly reggae-tinged rhythm of “I Cut Like a Buffalo” and the rusted-over acoustic blues of “Will There Be Enough Water,” or how gleefully and seamlessly the instrumental “3 Birds” changes direction– but what sells it is the magnetic charisma and chemistry between the musicians– and not just White and Mosshart, though their dynamic back-and-forth on “Treat Me Like Your Mother” is a greasy good time. The whole band is in a groove here that makes Horehound something much more than simply Jack’s latest curiosity: This is stylish and exciting music with weight and grit and imagination, and, though it’s made by four seasoned musicians, it stands as one of the most riveting debuts of 2009.

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