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Monday, June 9, 2014

Jack White: Lazaretto (Release Date: 6-10-2014)

        "I'm becoming a ghost," Jack White declares on the jaunty Alone in My Home, "so nobody can know me." Yeah... good luck with that. 15 years after The White Stripes' self-titled debut first met the world, White continues to ride an enormous wave of goodwill and fame, one he seems only semi-determined to outrun. It's clear the guy doesn't want to be thought of as a one-trick-pony, playing a crucial part in about 17,000 different bands in the last handful of years, even creating his own studio and label (Third Man Records), and producing other artists' work in his abundant free time. That said, he doesn't seem entirely ready to let go of past glories either, his solo music periodically indistinguishable from his more famous duo, while his recent buzz-generating interview with Rolling Stone magazine further confirms that the black, white, and red trim is still on his mind. If his solo debut, Blunderbuss, expertly (if perhaps obsessively) split the difference between experimentation and familiarity, his follow-up, Lazaretto, feels notably more determined to push further out into newer, more varied sounds. It's also decidedly messier.

        The early cuts from Lazaretto that have made their way across this internet in the last several months could readily be described as false advertising. Something tells me White was in in the bait-and-switch; our first taste of the LP, High Ball Stepper, was released on April Fool's Day, for crying out loud! The track, a swampy instrumental equipped with both bizarro mood shifts and a hefty helping of raw might, is completely singular on the disc, both for its lack of lyrics, and its jagged, schizoid sonics. Then came the title track, something of a White Stripes throwback that rides White's signature lyrical braggadocio and swagger through the 1:25 mark, when a savage guitar tares the track in half. It's an exhilarating burst of a song that works perfectly as a lead single, three-and-a-half minutes of lightning in a bottle. Too bad there's not more like it here.

        As was the case on Blunderbuss, White splits his time here between two different bands, fronting the all-male Buzzards and all-female Peacocks in alternating succession. It comes as no surprise that the men are more frequently tasked with the 'harder and rockier' tracks, but the degree to which that rule is followed this time around is highly restrictive. A damning example of this comes when the aforementioned title track is followed by Peacock-powered Temporary Ground, a modest ditty whose subdued fiddle and folksy sway can't help but be over-shadowed by its loud and rowdy forbearer. As a matter of fact, almost all Peacock numbers lead a listener to wonder when things will pick up again, such as serviceable piano-lead closer Want and Able, and the breathlessly bitter and awe-inspiringly arrogant Entitlement (Somehow I kind of mean that in a good way). Alone in My Home and I Think I Found the Culprit manage to rise above the malaise with lovely harmonies, twinkling instrumentals, and a bit more forward-moving momentum, but for the most part, Jack's ladies seem to be on hand for largely aesthetic reasons, and are given precious little in the way of engaging material.

        The Buzzards have all the fun here, such as on piss-and-vinaeger single-in-the-making Black Bat Licorice, a dingy blast with splashy percussion and a vengeful verve. It's enough to make one wonder what might have happened if White had dedicated himself to their bigger sound exclusively... until one remembers that he already did that for over a decade. Lazaretto, even more so than its immediate ancestor, sounds like a transitional album, suffering from the growing pains of an artist doing everything in his power to expand the walls of the box he's been put in without actually vacating the space altogether. It must be tantalizing, all of this musical freedom after so many years of self-imposed focus on the same basic goals and sounds, but the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach only serves to hinder this record. Wether he fleshes out his bluesy, down-tempo sound with the Peacocks, or regains his throne as a full-time rock god with the Buzzards, here's to hoping White just picks a side next time around. Many parts of Lazaretto work, but cohesive it ain't.

Grade: B-