There’s a moment in the documentary From Under theGreat Northern Lights (2009), where Jack White explains the methodologies of his recording process with the White Stripes; by putting himself in a specific box – one with a limiting drummer, limited time, and a variety of self-imposed constrictions – he was able to make perfectly imperfect art. The premeditations surrounding The White Stripes and, with that, all of White’s career, depicted a maddening genius who desired for things to be perfect within their own rules. As a listener, it’s unfair to analyze any of his various releases without first considering those rules.
The collective work of The Dead Weather, White’s band with Alison Mosshart from the Kills, is the work of a perfectionist cutting loose. This isn’t to call the bands first two albums sloppy, but in their own way they are a collage of aggressive and cutthroat ideas that are cut free from the the normal laser focus of White’s musical gaze. And this makes sense; the Dead Weather only came about because White lost his voice one night on stage and, like is the case with much of his career, he needed to improvise with the limitations placed on him.
And truthfully, this recent album included, The Dead Weather are Jack White’s best non-White Stripes project. With it, White finds ways to become heavier, angrier, and crazier than he is on other records. With Mosshart’s vocals a steady stream of explosive unevenness, this allows White’s work at the drum kit to be a pure exploration of the artist as a whole: furious, wild, and often times extravagant. Even when the band wants to cut the rock ‘n roll bullshit, as they do on previous album closers “Will There Be Enough Water?” (off Horehound) and “Old Mary” (off Sea of Cowards), they can’t help but push themselves into a distinctly dark and cold place – something “Icky Thump” or “Salute Your Solution” had never even attempted.
Dodge and Burn has moments of darkness, perhaps less so than its predecessors, but we have the grumbling roar of “Three Dollar Hat” and Mossharts defenseless screams at the opening of “Open Up”. But right off the bat, The Dead Weather seem to have shifted gears; the bands album covers had previously featured artful but horrifying subjects and faces shrouded in shadow and were an indicator of the kind of thrown-together carnival of rock you were about to experience. This new cover, with its vibrant purples and oranges, features all the members of the band sitting groomed in their leather jackets and 50’s greaser attire letting the world appropriately burn behind them. As indicated, the straight laced rock and roll on Dodge and Burn feels slightly less chaotic and far more calculated than it has on the bands previous records.
This isn’t a bad thing; the lingering horrors of the bands organ sound are still featured on some of these tracks, and White’s drumming is as manic as ever, but enough of Dodge and Burn comes across as, by Jack White and the Dead Weather’s standards, pedestrian sounding. And to that end, pedestrian sounding enough to make the album feel like a dud at times. Songs like “Buzzkill(er)”, “Let Me Through”, and “Too Bad” (among other moments) lack interesting solos and dynamic moments, and the shit-kicking-name-taking hard rock they’re attempting to make comes off as not just boring but almost meek. At least with songs like “Cop and Go”, even though the heart of the song is a pretty mid-tempo mix of guitars trading licks, the intro and especially the ending are wild enough to send us into not just an acceptance but an embrace of those moments of easily digestible rock.
The Dead Weather still feel like Jack White’s only project to date where the songs are each their own ticking time bomb, waiting to explode into the next part of a song without warning. Dodge and Burn has plenty of moments of that, but the end result can offer mixed results. Mosshart’s howling at the end of “Cop and Go” certainly strikes a nerve, but the sudden emergence of White’s vocals on “Be Still” is wholly less satisfying than the effect is intended to be and even worse, some of these songs aren’t trying to be exciting.
I would be remiss not to discuss “Impossible Winner”, the albums closing track and one that is entirely confusing and deeply upsetting from a listening standpoint. Immediately the minimalism of just Mosshart and a piano feels reminiscent of songs she’s written in her other band The Kills (notably their cover of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline) and “Impossible Winner” feels like nothing on Dodge and Burn. For the first time in The Dead Weather, Mosshart is trying to sound pretty – a hat she can wear fine when she needs to but not after the previous 38-minutes have painted her to be a wild haired gypsy whose magnetic gaze and howl-at-the-moon vocals are masculine and angry in approach. When an orchestra comes in by the end, its impossible to know exactly what and why and how this was decided to close out the album – or even be included within the Dead Weather’s discography. It’s an interesting track that gets buried under the contexts of both the record and the band.
In its own way, because of Dodge and Burn’s shortcomings itbecomes a perfect primer to the bands work; songs on this album come across so much more straight forward than they did on Sea of Cowards and Horehound. While in full disclosure I didn’t go back and listen to the previous two albums in their entirety before this review, the fact that my memory fixates on the Satan’s dance floor nature of “Hustle and Cuss”, the methodically paced guitars of “Die By The Drop”, and the dryness of the drumming on “New Pony”, shows me that the filler on those albums is really undermined by how odd the instrumentation, mixing, and moments, come across. While Dodge and Burn has plenty of filler that is harder to forgive and easier to forget (“Buzzkill(er)” was a single after all), it’s by no stretch an album lacking in oddities and merit and if the sanctity of fuzzy guitars and driving drums is something you’re interested in preserving, this will hold you over until Fuzz put out their sophomore release later this year. Grade: B-