"I gave [monogamy] up a long time ago," Jack White recently told The New York Times while musing on his much-publicized divorce from model/musician Karen Elson. "Those rules don't apply anymore." The renaissance rock superstar could have easily been commenting on the restless nature of his musical relationships — from his desire to tackle a broad spectrum of pre-disco subgenres, to his need to do so with multiple partners.
After White unveiled "Sixteen Saltines" — a trashy, supercharged garage-rock guitar juggernaut and the second single from his debut solo LP Blunderbuss — during an SNL performance last month, armchair speculation that the album would mark the singer-songwriter/guitar god's full-fledged return to his gritty White Stripes roots was widespread. As it turns out, as a pre-release single, the song is a bit of a bait-and-switch.
Sonically and aesthetically speaking, Blunderbuss (which comes out this Tuesday on Third Man/Columbia) plays through like a roots-rock mix tape, and "Sixteen Saltines" is its single White Stripes selection. The rest of the record careens with consistency between swaggering blues rockers ("Freedom at 21"), embittered slow-burning ballads ("Love Interruption") and even a chimerical cover of the Ruby Toombs-penned Little Willie Johnson R&B A-side "I'm Shakin' " thrown in for good measure.
The record's biggest and most pleasant surprise comes in the form of "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy" — a stunning pop-psychedelia shuffle that sounds like The Small Faces at a moonshine-fueled pickin' party. The similarly spirited track that follows, "I Guess I Should Go to Sleep " — an upbeat, acoustic guitar- and saloon piano-driven Dixieland waltz — continues in much the same vein.
While White never commits to taking on a particular sub-genre for more than a song or two at a time, there is consistency in where many of these cuts are coming from: an angry place. The common thread stringing together this 13-song set is confrontation. Whether it's during a cranked-up rocker like "Sixteen Saltines," a bluesy, driving dirge like "Weep Themselves to Sleep" or an American ballad like the album's title track, we hear an aggrieved, at-wits'-end White dressing down unnamed hypocrites, antagonists, morally bereft succubi, jealous lovers, villains, victims and trash talkers, perhaps explaining why this record — think Jack White's entry to the canon of post-traumatic, classic-rock divorce records à la Blood on the Tracks — is named after a muzzle-loading firearm from the 17th century.
While such a title could also tip hat to White's penchant for breathing life into antiquated genres — which the singer does all over Blunderbuss — his palpable outrage rings out in consummate contrast to the record's open, at times celebratory and, more often than not, resolute and whimsical tone. First Lady of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson described White as "a velvet brick" after he gave her a twilight ride on his coattails, producing and performing on her 2011 come-back effort The Party Ain't Over. And if her diagnosis is indeed accurate, then Blunderbuss is Jack White's spot-on self-portrait.
The album is also a snapshot of the musical constellation White has created for himself during his first five years in Nashville. Names well known by any ear-to-the-ground local music wonk — names like Sam and Ruby vocalist Ruby Amanfu, sideman fiddler Fats Kaplin, keyboardist Brooke Waggoner, upright bassist Bryn Davies and JEFF the Brotherhood singer-guitarist Jake Orrall — appear throughout the album's credits.
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