Back in black! Rumbustious third from Jack White's gothic blues explosion
You know where you stand with The Dead Weather, and it’s usually on a lonely highway in the dead of night with some bad-ass outlaw on your tail. Ever since this part-time US alt-rock supergroup released their first two albums, Horehound and Sea Of Cowards, back to back in the space of 11 months in 2009-10, reinforced with a couple of world tours, there has been no mistaking their pedigree or malevolent intent.
Like cartoon villains cooking up demented garage-rock fantasies in their drummer’s Nashville studio, the group’s heavy freakshow blues suggests that Jack White, The Kills’ singer Alison Mosshart, Dean Fertita of Queens Of The Stone Age and sometime Raconteur Jack Lawrence revel in the absurdity of their privileged position and always make the most of their brief time together. In The Dead Weather, free of any baggage, these exceptional performers each get to play in their dream band, and if they happen to make fools of themselves, well, so what. It’s just for fun – there are no ties, nothing serious riding on it. And as vanity projects go, this one has legs: those two albums reached the US Top Ten.
This same cavalier attitude fuels their first album for five years, Dodge And Burn. A leaner, meaner beast than its predecessors, the bulk of it was recorded in a flurry of activity this summer when a window in the quartet’s schedules became available. In two earlier sessions from 2013 and last year, four songs had been recorded and slipped out on a couple of seven-inches via Third Man Records’ Vault subscription service: “Open Up”, “Rough Detective”, “Buzzkill(er)” and “Too Bad”, each of which find Mosshart caterwauling and sneering like Janis Joplin over Fertita’s gonzo see-saw riffing, as if the pair are auditioning for Royal Trux.
Though he’d protest, White remains the dominant figure in The Dead Weather – he also produced the album and oversaw its manufacture – and is the only member whose career outside the band has reached astonishing new heights in the period since Sea Of Cowards, thanks to his swashbuckling solo sets, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto. Having laboured over the latter for a year and a half, he and the band whipped through Dodge And Burn in ten days. Mosshart says she wrote the lyrics to five songs in just over a day. Normally this would be cause for concern, but Dodge And Burn succeeds because the songs capture the pure manic energy of those quick-fire sessions, of the band being completely at ease with each other, bristling with ideas and knowing they can play whatever they want in the moment. Like White’s blunderbuss and lazaretto, the title refers to something no longer in currency: in photographic terminology, dodging and burning is the technique of manipulating the exposure of prints to create a certain effect, a trick done with the click of a mouse these days. Again, as he does with his music, White blends the past with the present. And just as The Dead Weather manage to give new, fairly corny meaning to an archaic phrase – Dodge And Burn could be an ’80s cop show – so they administer a thorough scrubbing to knackered old garage-rock until it gleams like the chrome fender on a Dodge.
In an interview last year with US news veteran Dan Rather, White explained that, for him, the blues is the truth, and that as a musician he is in pursuit of the truth. By using characters and stories in song, he said, “we’re trying to get to something truthful that makes sense”. On Dodge And Burn, he and Mosshart plough through fields of clichés in a bid to get to the essence of what they do. Her search for something meaningful on the Led Zep bluster of “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” is framed by the skewering riffs of Fertita, who’s in the form of his life on this record, laying down some of the filthiest, heaviest guitar parts that appear to tear into tracks when you least expect. Mosshart, too, who’s constantly in motion, feels at liberty to explore her primal side as she channels the elemental expressionism of Cormac McCarthy on “Lose The Right” and “Let Me Through”; “I got a bloodhound tooth hanging like a dagger in a bar back west”, she growls in a way that implies only she knows what she means. On the mongrel Motown funk of the excellent “Mile Markers” she half-raps, “I churned my milk and honey, I lost track of all my money/My family rescued some other stray dog…”.
The album’s lightest moment, “Three Dollar Hat”, is a murder ballad skank a la Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” that finds White rapping like Eminem about “that bad man Jackie Lee, shooting everybody down with a .33” while a Moog oscillates wildly. This and “Lose The Right”, an organ-driven ska groove, are Lazaretto-styled examples of The Dead Weather looking to push beyond the goth-garage template they minted on those first two albums and which can sound tired. Most unexpected, after so much ruptured blues, is the closing “Impossible Winter”, a sentimental piano ballad bundled off Broadway and soberly delivered by Mosshart who sings, seeming quite out of character, “I am a wheel goin’ round/In a mirror house/A maze with no way out/What you have fears about”.
After five years, Dodge And Burn needed to offer more than the standard none-more-black Dead Weather sturm und drang, and it does – a lot more. White’s enlightened approach after Lazaretto gives this a certain joie de vivre, a dry, mordant wit. Be assured, this is still a very heavy rock record, but it slithers with a degree of grace that had been missing in the past. As welcome as it is to have The Dead Weather back, it’s also a shame that White has announced he’s taking a long break from playing live, because this is one record that demands to be taken onstage and propelled into oblivion.
How did this album come about?
Well, making this Dead Weather record was a very fast experience. We wrote four songs for this two years ago and put those out as singles, and then we thought we could do that every time we get together and at the end of that journey we’ll have a record. But it didn’t happen. Then all of a sudden a couple of months ago we had four or five days when we were all in the same town [Nashville] together and went in and wrote eight more songs, mixed it and recorded it, everything, it all happened so fast. Then we were faced with the dilemma of what to do with it. Can’t tour ’cos we’re all so busy. Shall we sit on it, which seems incredibly boring, or put it out, which is more exciting.
Can you describe the chemistry in the studio? Something must make you all keep coming back together…
Well, it’s really fun to work with these guys, it’s a joy. The speed at which we work is fascinating to us all. Everybody walks in, puts on their instruments or gets in front of their instruments, I get in front of a mic with a notebook and pen, and if we’re all in the right mindset – and we generally are when we’re together – we’ll write and record a song in 45 minutes to an hour. Which is so exciting, and it spurs you on the next one and the next one and if you left us there we’d be there forever. It’s freeing, really freeing. It’s always surprising to me when I walk away and go to bed and wake up in the morning and go, what just happened? That was awesome! But it does require you to be at a certain point in your life. Do you have that freedom in your mind to be able to sit there and create that? It takes a special moment and that’s totally what happened with the first record and similarly with the second, and with this one too. And that’s the gist of the band – when we can do it, we can, and it’s a total joy.
Who brings what to the table in the studio?
It’s hard to say because it’s different with every song. Jack is an incredibly decisive person in the studio but also open to everybody’s ideas. So everybody’s suddenly in a different mindset where everything counts – you’re not so shy about singing some crazy-ass lyrics or playing some guitar part that you wished you could have played when you were 16. In the studio, we’re all facing each other in the same room – and it’s not a big room – and recording at the same time. I kid you not, I wrote the lyrics to five songs in a day and a half. If I was in the wrong mood I could never do that. But the music inspires me so much that immediately there’s a sound, there’s a feeling, there’s a character growing in my head, there’s a story, there’s a mood. If you allow it in, it sort of tells me what to do, tells me what to say.
Sounds like the fantasy band everyone wants to be in when they’re 15.
Totally, it is. I think that’s how we feel like when we’re playing together – this is like our first band, we’re 14 or 15 and we’re fucking awesome. Every band at that age thinks they’re awesome, but it’s such a joy to play with these guys because they are awesome, it’s incredible to be in a room listening to them play. Every time Dean writes a riff I can’t believe it’s possible, or every time a song comes out of nowhere I’m always surprised.
Dodge and burn is the name of a technique used to manipulate the exposure of photographs in a dark room…
Yes, it’s an old photography term. We were sitting in studio and someone said it and I think I might have been the only person who knew what it meant ’cos I used to take photography classes – and now it’s a Photoshop tool. It’s a cool phrase ’cos it can mean a million different things. We’re always looking for titles that are open to interpretation. That phrase has almost gone and now it can take on new meaning.
What can you say about the last song “Impossible Winner”, an uncharacteristically tender Dead Weather ballad?
I wrote that song a while ago. I have an arsenal of these that I write all day long and don’t really have homes. I was in the studio first one morning and Dean walked in and caught me playing it on an acoustic guitar and asked what it was. He then sat down at the piano and played it with me, learning it in four seconds. Then LJ [Little Jack] walks in and says, ‘Hey, what’s that?’, and starts playing, and 20 minutes later Jack walks in and sits behind the drums and all of a sudden I’m like, okay we’re doing this song, it’s awesome, and they loved it.
Is Jack White constantly working?
He’s one of the busiest people I’ve ever met. He’s always working, always doing 15 projects at once, and he copes with it beautifully. That’s his best state and that’s how he’s built.
What does this record mean to you?
This is my favourite Dead Weather record. I think we pushed things further than we have before. It’s just a heavy badass record. It is heavy – that’s the only word I can think of. Every time I hear it I’m surprised, like I’m having an out-of-body experience!
INTERVIEW: PIERS MARTIN
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