By B. Simm
Jack White has been called a lot of things – minimalist, revivalist, madman, genius, protagonist, antagonist, lover, fighter – probably all true, or true enough. One thing’s for sure, Jack’s a creator who loves making art.
Now suppose for a moment we suspend our belief that pop music, any and all of that stuff made to be marketed for immediate consumption, did not have a hit factor assigned to it. In other words, we didn’t rate or predict how much radio play, units moved or YouTube views a song or album got or was worthy of. Rather we assessed music only for its art value, not for its potential to chart and sell.
It’s still hard for those familiar with Jack to remove his association with the White Stripes. He’s constantly compared to the success of his musical debut. Such is the nature of the biz: you’re only as good as your last record. And in Jack’s case, for many it’s still those records he made with Meg. But Jack doesn’t roam in that world anymore. He lives in the land of art for art’s sake, which is the starting point for Boarding House Reach.
As the pulsating vibe of the album’s opener “Connected By Love” continues to build, the mid-section of the song suddenly bursts into a frenzy of weird guitar loops and crazy keyboard soloing. Then, just as suddenly, it drops down to near silence with only a soft piano and warm bassline playing while Jack pleads and cries out, “Forgive me, and save me from myself!” Sisters Ann and Regina McCrary soon follow and lend their powerful voices pushing the chorus into a climatic spin of strange, vibrating electronics and full gospel sounds. When it finally settles, it’s easy to image Jack the mad-scientist running around his lab tweaking dials and fiddling with gadgets moreso than Jack the musician headphones on bellowing into a studio mic.
Jack the scientist is not such a peculiar analogy given his first career he flourished as a tradesman in his upholstery shop. Boarding House Reach has that sound and feel all over it – the studio is Jack’s laboratory, his new shop, and his trade is mixing weird science with rock ‘n’ roll producing strange musical concoctions.
Jack also loves gospel. On “Why Walk A Dog” a church organ forcefully pumps out two chords swaying back and forth as if someone was standing on the keys instead pressing down on them with their hands. It’s a big churchy blast that gives away to a brooding guitar solo that’s more akin to motorized output signal that grinds up and down as it’s put through an electronic oscillator. Weird, yes. Wonderful as well. The marriage of soul and sci-fi sonics works quite well.
Moving into funk and R&B, “Ice Station Zebra” is chopped and sliced with jazzy breaks and machine-gun breakdowns with some fine multi-layered rappin’ by Jack that’s right up there with the Beasties. Taking a sharp turn and heading into very different territory, “Abulia and Akrasia” showcases the talents of Australian blues singer C.W. Stoneking, who does a spoken-word sermon over a sad, spiritualized Middle Eastern violin and tinkering piano. While the manic pace of “Over and Over and Over” with its fuzzed-out electro-romp and haunting, alien chants, parallels the eerie universe of Bowie’s “Black Star”. Staying in a strangeland, Hal’s omnipresent mechanical voice from 2001: A Space Odyssey is filtered through a cheesy TV commercial that leads off “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”. The track then proceeds to ramp up into a harrowing garage-jazz-psychedelic freakout that cuts right into a late ’60s B-movie, biker soundtrack.
There’s A LOT going on in Jack’s lab. His experiments dabble in 10cc’s quirky pop and Roxy Music’s avant-garde art rock, then travel through the Beatles’ playground on the White Album before pulling into the carnival factory-works of latter-day Tom Waits. Boarding House Reach is an endless experimentation, fused with sci-fi creations that are, yes, wonderfully weird. Will any of these tracks chart? Who cares. It may not be commercial, but it’s art. Good art where Jack takes on a new classification by transforming himself into a complex futurist.Boarding House Reach, Jack White, Third Man/Columbia