I resisted Jack White for an awfully long time.
While I try to hear everything I can, I have an inborn resistance to things I’m “supposed” to like. By that I mean music that seems to grab the critical consciousness in a choke-hold, music that seems to get universal support from all the right corners at the same time. Right now, for instance, I’m “supposed” to like Tune-Yards and Andrew Bird and the National. I only really like one of those, and I’ll leave it to you to guess which one.
I’m honestly not a natural contrarian. I sincerely want to like everything I hear. The problem sometimes is getting me to hear something that has attained such a level of hype. If the noise drowns out the music, my natural instinct is to wait until the noise dies down. At the risk of ruining the mystery of the last paragraph, I’ll tell you that I avoided Tune-Yards’ Whokill like it could give me herpes. It took a while to get me to even sample the band, so deafening was the hype, and when I did, I found something pretty terrific. Merrill Garbus is a bit of a genius, and her new album Nicki Nack is even better and more focused.
This is the way it usually works. I’ll stay away from something I’m “supposed” to like until I feel comfortable approaching it, and then I’ll kick myself for not sampling it earlier. However, I know myself well enough to know that if I had tried Tune-Yards in the midst of the critical tsunami, I would have let my own irritation color my first experience. I try not to do that, but in cases like this, it’s usually better if I wait it out a little bit.
So back in 2002, the White Stripes were a band I was supposed to like. And I didn’t. At all.
“Fell in Love With a Girl” was absolutely everywhere that year, and I hated it. Simple, punky, sloppy, tuneless, pointless – it just annoyed me to no end. The fact that the Stripes were part of a garage-rock revival at the time, leading the way for boring blah merchants like the Hives and the Vines, only served to repel me further. I didn’t buy White Blood Cells that year, and in fact I stayed away from Elephant the following year too.
It took a kind correspondent and some free copies to get me to try the Stripes in 2005, and when I finally did, I heard something pretty magical. Get Behind Me Satan was exactly the kind of diverse work I needed to feel like there was something worth investigating here. Since then, I’ve been a fan, and I’ve watched as Jack White let his genius out slowly. His pop collective The Raconteurs were nothing like the Stripes, and his dirty blues tribe The Dead Weather like neither of them. He chose fascinating artists to produce, from Loretta Lynn to Wanda Jackson to Jerry Lee Lewis, and with Third Man Records he’s been a key component of the current vinyl revival.
And now he’s released Lazaretto, his second album as a solo artist, and it may be my favorite of his things. Like everything he’s done, it’s steeped in history – White is a man who knows his old blues and rock and roll – but this is the fullest flowering of his new-old-sounds approach. It’s also his most complex and all-over-the-map record, and it seems like while his bands usually stick to one or two squares, when White records under his own name, he feels free to wander around the chessboard. Lazaretto sounds like nothing he’s done, but it sounds like everything he’s done, all tied up in a neat bow.
Of course it starts with blues-rock, because that’s his home base. “Three Women” is a hilariously clichéd blues lament – “I got three women, red, blonde and brunette” – that he updates for the iPhone age: “It took a digital photograph to pick which one I like.” The rowdy “lordy-lord” that makes up the refrain is insanely catchy, and it’ll probably take you a couple listens to realize that White isn’t playing any guitar on this tune. It’s fueled by piano and organ, with some nifty pedal steel by Fars Kaplin. “Lazaretto” follows the same path – it starts with a synthesizer bass groove, and the guitars don’t really kick in until the 43-second mark. When they do, though, they’re massive, and his Jimmy Page-style solo is a facemelter.
Had this been just another rock record, it probably would have been fine. But White pulls out all the stops, filling these 39 minutes with every influence in his toolbox. Lillie Mae Rische plays sweet fiddle and sings on the country-blues “Temporary Ground,” and comes back for the tumbling instrumental “High Ball Stepper” and the quick barroom pop throwdown “Just One Drink.” “Would You Fight for My Love” is a true epic in 4:09, Brooke Waggoner’s piano leading the menacing charge. “I know that you want more, but would you fight for my love? And I’ve hurt you before, but can you ignore, my love?” The song takes half a dozen fascinating detours before coming in for a grandiose landing.
“Alone in My Home” is folksy, and “Entitlement” is even folksier, with harp playing by the great Timbre Cierpke (whose own new album should be coming soon). While White seems to be pulling a Kanye West throughout the latter song (“I’m sick of being told what to do”), he rights himself at the end: “Not one single person on God’s golden shore is entitled to one single thing.” “I Think I Found the Culprit” is a minor-key wonder, Waggoner’s piano again taking the lead, and brief closer “Want and Able” finds White playing all the instruments to tell a winding fable over simple chords. It could be 200 years old, this song.
I quite like Lazaretto, particularly for its expanded palette of musical colors. While Jack White has contributed to many single-mission bands, he seems to feel fully unfettered when recording under his own name, and that’s a treat to listen to. Sure, I resisted for a while, but in my defense, had he sounded like this in 2003, I would have been much more interested. I still feel like I’m supposed to embrace his work, and I’m still pulling back from that a little. But if he keeps making records like Lazaretto, I won’t be pulling back much longer.
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While we’re admitting things, I’ll say here that I do get a slight thrill out of liking bands that I’m not supposed to. Anyone who has been reading this column for any length of time can probably name many I’ve championed through the years, from Hanson to the Click Five to Kip Winger to Coldplay. It’s not intentional – I’m not forcing myself to like these bands just to be contrary. But when I do end up liking something that I know will send a tremor through the Force, it makes me devilishly happy.
Linkin Park is definitely one of those bands. Back in 2010, I included their tremendous fourth album, A Thousand Suns, in my top 10 list. It’s a record I still listen to regularly – I’d never much liked the band before Suns, but the depth and diversity of that work ensured that I’d be paying attention from then on. I still feel like Suns deserved its spot in the list. It revealed Linkin Park as a band unlike any other, with a kaleidoscope of influences and a willingness to take risks. Some of those risks were ill-advised, but still. I’d never thought of them as a particularly brave band until then.
And I’ll admit that they disappointed me with 2012’s Living Things, a record that seemed to retrench around their old sound, disregarding many of the forward leaps of Suns. It was still largely electronic, but it felt a bit like covering Meteora with synthesizers. I’ll also admit that advance press on the band’s sixth album, The Hunting Party, didn’t thrill me. “The guitars will be back,” they promised. “It will be like Hybrid Theory,” they exclaimed. This felt like a full retreat. I almost didn’t buy The Hunting Party.
But goddamn, I’m glad I did.
This is Linkin Park in full risk-taking mode, but it’s a completely different risk than Suns. This is, for the most part, Linkin Park’s version of a full-on metal album. Drummer Rob Bourdon and guitarist Brad Delson take center stage here in a way they haven’t since the early days – this record could be seen as an apology to both of them for the past four years of electronic experimentation. But this isn’t the melodic nu-metal of last decade. This is huge, thudding, almost old-school metal. This is some old-Metallica thrash metal shit. It’s louder, more aggressive and more hardcore than anything they’ve done.
And they’re still Linkin Park, so they’ve worked in a liberal amount of those electronics and Mike Shinoda’s rapping, sitting alongside Chester Bennington’s full-throated screams. “War” may as well be the Stooges, so unstoppable is its punk-rock groove, but it leads directly into “Wasteland,” a showcase for Shinoda that sounds like a heavier Fort Minor track. “Guilty All the Same” initially underwhelmed me – I had no idea the whole record would be along these lines – but now it knocks me flat. It’s a six-minute metal workout that somehow makes room for a verse from Rakim, without ever sounding like Limp Bizkit.
This is an angry record, and the band has kept the political focus of Suns, raging against the futility of war throughout. Bennington is a hell of a singer, and when he’s not shouting his throat raw here, he’s providing moments of sweetness amidst the din. “Until It’s Gone” is a four-minute cliché lyrically, but it’s pretty awesome musically, full of organ-and-keys interludes and big-big-big choirs. “Mark the Graves” may be the record’s high point, a mid-tempo thrash epic that gives way to a lovely sea of a verse and a hummable riff. But then, the high point may be the piano-led instrumental “Drawbar,” or “Final Masquerade,” an atmospheric pop song the equal of anything this band has done.
The closer, “A Line in the Sand,” is an epic among epics. It starts with a slow burn, Shinoda singing about surveying the aftermath of a battle, but it soon explodes in a volley of Megadeth-worthy riffs and beats. (This is actually much, much heavier than Megadeth’s last record.) Throughout its six minutes, it keeps cycling back to that lovely opening melody, while building on it. Bennington screams his head off, and then the song collapses into a slow rapped section that shouldn’t fit as well as it does. When it returns to that swell melody at the end, it feels like they’ve crafted the metal monsterpiece of 2014.
All by itself, “A Line in the Sand” would justify this change in direction. And make no mistake, this is a massive change. This is not a return to the Hybrid Theory/Meteora nu-metal sound, and at this point, I don’t think they’re ever going back there. I’m going to get a ration of shit for recommending Linkin Park again, but I really like The Hunting Party. For one thing, it scratches my old-school metal itch, but for another, it offers further evidence that Linkin Park is much more than their reputation would suggest. They’re not afraid to take a hard right turn like this and leave their fanbase in the dust. For sheer ballsiness, The Hunting Party gets a nod from me. The fact that it’s a killer record only seals the deal.
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Next week, back to the beautiful with First Aid Kit and The Wild Life. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.