Southern gothic gut-busting blues: The Dead Weather - Horehound, 2009

Southern gothic gut-busting blues: The Dead Weather - Horehound, 2009
July 14, 2009
Zach Zwagil

Jack White. A man that evokes both poles of rock & roll purist reaction. Upon mentioning his name, many will 'ooh', and many will 'ugh'. His seemingly sloppy minimalism of a guitar approach is what is the great divider of opinion. So, it begs the question: if his approach is such a bastardization of the electric guitar tradition, why have two of the artists that have had him join them onstage go by the names of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan? You'd think, if he was such a derisive character, these pioneers of blues-infused rock & roll would have dismissed him as the antithesis of the blues. Clearly, this is not the case. And, at the end of the day, who's opinion is tantamount? Dylan's or the virtuoso guitar snob down the street who doesn't listen to any music unless it is guitar-dominant?

The blues is not a music of instrumental virtuosity; it is a music of emotional virtuosity. It's power does not lie in the overrated focus on how fast you can develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but rather in the frugal use of emotion-laden notes, the powerful rhythms of the African music tradition, and its most important ingredient: Soul. The original incarnations of the blues were primal and visceral - a foray into the human condition. This is why White was brought on stage. His music is raw, his music is attitude. He represents the modern progression of the blues.

His latest project is The Dead Weather - another supergroup more or less; composed of bassist "Little" Jack Lawrence of Raconteurs fame, guitarist/keyboardist Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age fame, and the lesser known vocals of Alison Mosshart of The Kills. With White on drums predominantly, the Dead Weather is Mosshart's stage. She is one of the most necessary female singers that grace the scene today, and Jack White wants to make sure you know her.

Today, the Dead Weather released their debut album, Horehound.

The album begins with "60 Feet Tall". Once it kicks in at the :30 second mark, you'll immediately notice that, like all of White's projects, this one is a unique foray into a side of the blues. His White Stripes are minimalist punk blues, his Raconteurs are full band garage rock & roll, and the Dead Weather...well we'll come back to this one. The swampy prodding delayed riff, the eviscerating bass drum, and Mosshart's sexual tigress growl make you wonder how many of these members actually did sell their souls to the devil. The darkened pulse of it all is almost reminiscent of a descent to the pits of hell, but the descent is just about the most hedonistic romp you could ever want. It forebodes, it taunts, and it struts on down to the depths of the mind and refuses to set you free, that is until 44 minutes is up.

Following is the Stripesian Icky Thump-era "Hang You From The Heavens" - the album's first single. The muff, while sounding like the work of White, is pure genius emanating from the claws of Fertita. Bass players could learn a lesson or two from Lawrence, who refuses to remain a simple rhythmic foundation, as is the case in most rock & roll-oriented groups. Rather, he bathes himself in a crunchy fuzz lather and sets the mood. One sharp rhythmic fluctuation after the next provides the song with its possessed aura. Mosshart wails, "I don't know how to let you go/Or if I should keep you/I don't know how to let you know/I really don't got a reason/I'd like to grab you by the hair/And drag you to the devil." If that's not southern gothic blues at it's best, I don't know what is. It's primal, it's visceral, it's the essence of the blues.

The album returns from its hit single notions with the 13th Floor Elevators/Bob Marley marriage that is the 60s psychedelic reggae-d groove of "I Cut Like A Buffalo". Mosshart and White share vocal credits as Fertita returns to his QotSA-delegated organ. Even despite its uptempo upstroking, Mosshart and her Weather manage to tread deep. Mosshart is effortless as she introduces the droning "So Far From Your Weapon". Some will compare her to her darkened alternative foremothers; whether they be Grace Slick, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and the likes of others. However, there's a dominant male influence on her delivery, most significantly with the rough-edged soul of Jagger, Iggy, Lou Reed, etc. She exists in her own vocal realm, a true treasure that deserves mining.

Pure unadulterated attitude is what you get with the Oedipal rumble that is "Treat Me Like Your Mother". Mosshart struts, "Come on look me in the eye/You wanna try to tell a lie?/I bet you can't, you know why?/I'm just like your mother." The track ebbs and flows, employing organ-ground grooves and aggressive melodic harmony. "Rocking Horse" marks not only the end of the first half, but the first substantial digression straight back to the gothic psychedelic garage blues of the late 60s Nuggets era. What is becoming apparent here is the confrontational nature of the album as a whole. One thing the blues is known for is its confrontational and confessional approach; so, yet again, another reason why White should be regarded highly as a blues musician.

But, this is not about Jack White, this is an Alison Mosshart album. The she-devil fury rolls on with a cover of Bob Dylan's "New Pony" off of 1978's Street Legal. Mosshart's banshee antics are in full gear as she wails, howls, and does everything in between. "Come over here, pony, I wanna climb up one time on you" is enough for the average man to surrender himself in downright fear or in concertgoer ecstasy to the sexual deviance of our resident temptress.

A few digressions are in order with the effected and Mosshart-indulgent "Bone House" and the instrumental "3 Birds" - a prologue to the album's triumphant endnote. Mosshart and White find themselves entangled over the Iggy Pop-delivered "No Hassle Night" just before the album's standard White-style close. On every Jack White-associated album, no matter how bone-shattering the collection of songs, the final song is a sprawling scoping hangover. "Will There Be Enough Water" is classic Southern gothic blues. The delivery is intimate, confessional, and honest both in musicianship and soul. The album-weary exhausted aftermath of a vocal delivered by both Mosshart and White is in its own way the aftermath of the accusatory female fury that unites the album - album cover anyone? The blues takes many successful divergent forms in White's music, but, in the end, he knows that no spin he puts on it will ever compare to the pure untweaked form that is the soul of the blues.

With Horehound, The Dead Weather launch a tour de force debut fronted by a tour de force she-demon in Alison Mosshart, all in an effort to bring the purest blues to those who have yet to revel in its grasp.
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