Keeping it short this week. I had a great vacation, thanks for asking. Hung out with old friends, ate good food, and did essentially nothing at all. Found six hours to watch all of The Trial of a Time Lord in a row (thanks, Mike), and took in the director’s cut of Watchmen. (It’s excellent, of course.) The week went by in a flash, but I’m glad I did it – I feel refreshed and alive right now.
Still, I’m pushing the deadline for this column, trying to get it done in between all the work and home duties I’ve neglected for a week. Hence, keeping it short and simple. But then, that kind of works with this week’s theme. Here, see for yourself.
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I have an uneasy relationship with simplicity.
The simpler something is, the less likely I am to enjoy it. I love Margo Timmins’ voice, but I have to force myself to sit through albums by her band, the Cowboy Junkies. I get why people like the blues, but I can’t listen to it – it’s all basically the same to me, despite the oceans of feeling behind it. I’ve grown to appreciate simplicity as I get older, but my first reaction is still vague disappointment whenever I hear the same three or four chords being used again and again.
This quirk comes almost exclusively from my teenage metalhead years, when everything had to be bigger, faster, louder and more complex than everything else. When Metallica embraced the blues on their self-titled album from 1991, it was like shoving a dagger in my heart. Where was the band that crafted …And Justice for All, assembling each technically amazing piece one at a time, emerging with a tight, progressive metal masterpiece? Why were they repeating boogie riffs over and over?
Of course, like all boys obsessed with finding The Best Players on Earth, I drifted into prog rock, while many my age were discovering punk. Here, God bless ‘em, were those 30-minute symphonies I’d been craving, songs which continually moved and blossomed, never repeating, always exploring. Here was music to study, to pore over, to test the skills of all but the best. The longer and more complex the songs were, the happier I seemed to be.
But over time, I discovered that most prog rock is, relatively speaking, emotionally empty. I still appreciated what bands like Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard were doing, but I’d heard Tori Amos, and the Choir, and others capable of bringing out emotional responses with two or three chords. And sometimes, two or three notes. It’s still a struggle for me – I usually respond to music cerebrally before I respond emotionally, so I’m quite often deconstructing the chord structure of a song before I even realize that I like it. I don’t know why this is, but I work with it.
The bluesy simplicity of his music kept me away from Jack White for a long time. Too long, honestly – I rejected the White Stripes as garage-rock throwaways after hearing “Fell in Love With a Girl,” and it took until 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan to bring me into the fold. Yes, the music is simplistic, and minimalist, and doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny as Close to the Edge might. But fuck all that, because it rocks, and that’s all that matters.
Now I follow Jack White wherever he goes. I picked up the two Raconteurs albums just to hear him in a new setting, paired with a lush pop songwriter like Brendan Benson. I bought Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose to hear how White’s style would translate behind the boards – he produced the album, co-writing a few songs while he was at it. And now, I’ve bought Horehound, the debut album from White’s new band, the Dead Weather.
This is exactly the kind of album I probably wouldn’t have listened to five years ago, but I love it now. It’s pure blues-rock, swampy and dirty and simple and mean. The Dead Weather is a collective – White on drums, Raconteur Jack Lawrence on bass, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age on guitar, and Alison Mosshart of the Kills on vocals. But unlike other so-called supergroups, this one forges its own identity immediately. And it’s sleazy-sexy-awesome.
First, there’s the sound of this thing. The whole album sounds like it just crawled out of the muck – there isn’t a sharp, cleanly-produced moment here. Horehound is a lumbering beast of a record, lurching forward on White’s thunderous drums and Lawrence’s thick (THICK) bass lines. Mosshart’s vocals are half-buried in the swamp, but her husky vamp works extremely well with this material.
What material, you ask? Horehound is full to the brim with minor-key blues-rock, and not the kind you might have heard on an Aerosmith record. This is deep, crawling blues, shambling, but mighty enough to clock you one when you’re not paying attention. Opener “60 Feet Tall” is deceptive, starting things on a slow and slinky note, but Fertita’s guitars burst out of nowhere, dumping chunky, viscous noise all over everything. Second track “Hang You From the Heavens” rips through its 3:37 on a relentless Jack White drum beat, Mosshart barking out all the things she wants to do to you: “I’d like to grab you by the hair, and sell you off to the devil…”
White steps out from behind the drum kit to sing a few numbers with Mosshart – “I Cut Like a Buffalo,” for instance, and the totally kickass “Bone House.” Single “Treat Me Like Your Mother” is a full-on vicious stomp with a mantra-like coda from White, instrumental “3 Birds” interrupts its blues for a piano-organ interlude of sorts, and the band crashes their way through a nigh-unrecognizable take on Bob Dylan’s “New Pony.” The album ends as it began, with a slower shimmy entitled “Will There Be Enough Water.” Over six terrific minutes, the band rocks their baby to sleep, White and Mosshart sharing vocal duties. It’s a beautiful thing.
So yeah, Horehound is basically just a dark blues-rock album, one that might have passed me by a few years ago. It’s not passing me by now. I’m not sure what it is, but the Dead Weather may already be my favorite of Jack White’s three bands – it has the icky thump kickass of the White Stripes, filled out with some dirty, dirty bass, and a dingy basement vibe that seeps swampwater and attitude. If these songs were more complex, this wouldn’t work. White and his band know exactly the kind of blues they are going for here, and they do it wonderfully.
The Dead Weather’s a good example, but no band illustrates my struggle with simplicity quite like the Fiery Furnaces.
When they started out, siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger played a relatively straightforward variation on the blues. Their 2003 debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark was full of piano-boogie tunes and uncomplicated rock, and of course, I hated it at the time. But 2004’s follow-up, Blueberry Boat, knocked me on my ear – imagine Yes as a garage band, and you have the idea. 10-minute songs, multi-part suites, progressive rock monsters, all performed with a junky indie verve that worked. I’d never heard anything quite like it.
Of course, fans of the first album hated it. And with subsequent releases (seven in all, not counting Matthew Friedberger’s two-CD solo album), the band pushed things farther. Rehearsing My Choir was a song cycle about the siblings’ grandmother, narrated by the woman herself, and as impenetrable an album as you’re likely to find. Both Bitter Tea and Widow City played with lengthy song structures, changing things up every 10 seconds – it was impossible music, played astonishingly well.
But a funny thing happened – Fiery Furnaces albums started to sound tiresome to me. By the time they got to the two-hour live collage Remember, which spliced together bits of songs from all stages of their career in a relentless mess, I was pretty much done. By being as complex as possible, the Furnaces had started to bore me.
But now here’s I’m Going Away, the most straight-ahead record the Friedbergers have made since their debut. And I can only describe it as refreshing. This is not Gallowsbird’s Bark all over again – for one thing, this new album is slower and more sedate. But it does strip back all of the fussy arrangements and nearly-random structures of the past half-dozen albums, sticking with drums, guitar, bass, piano and Eleanor’s voice. Remarkably, I’m Going Away sounds more like a live album than their so-called live album did – I can imagine all of these songs pounded out as you hear them, one take, in the studio.
If nothing else, this album proves Matthew Friedberger can write a terrific pop song when he feels like it. The opening title track is a bluesy rave-up, with swell ride cymbal work from longtime drummer Robert D’Amico, and first single “Charmaine Champagne” makes judicious use of the term “folked up.” But it’s the slower ones that catch my ear. “Drive to Dallas” is a timeless-sounding ballad, the kind you’d hear in a smoky nightclub. “I’m not gonna drive to Dallas with blurry eyes again,” Eleanor sings, and it’s one of the most direct moments on a Furnaces album in recent memory.
The best of these songs come at album’s end. “Keep Me In the Dark” has moments of funk, but grafts a memorable chorus to them, and makes room for a bizarre keyboard solo from Matthew. “Lost at Sea” is a simple delight, one of Matthew’s finest melodies performed as minimally as possible, the focus on Eleanor’s voice. It’s one of only two that breaks the five-minute mark, with closer “Take Me Round Again” being the other. That song could have fit nicely on Gallowsbird’s, its rhythm and blues reminiscent of the Furnaces’ more traditionally-minded past.
And perhaps its future. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the Furnaces, it’s that they will never do what’s expected. I certainly didn’t expect a simple pop record from them at this stage in their career, but I’m Going Away is just about perfect, a palate-cleanser for whatever’s next. This is a band known for its meandering side paths, but sometimes, you’re just in the mood to walk straight on down the road. I expect I will keep on struggling with simplicity, but when it’s this good, it’s barely a struggle at all.
See you in line Tuesday morning.