It took me a long time to like Jack White.
My first exposure to the White Stripes came during the height of the garage-rock wave of the early 2000s. No one remembers bands like the Hives and the Vines now, but at the time they were considered the future of rock and roll: lo-fi, scrappy, high-energy sounds made by people who could barely play their instruments. Into this arena waded Jack and Meg White with their mega-hit “Fell in Love With a Girl,” two minutes of yelping over shambling guitar and drums that sounded like they were recorded live and drunk. White Blood Cells, as an album, fell into the sound of the moment very well, and it took a while for me to realize there was more going on there.
In fact, it wasn’t until Get Behind Me Satan, still my favorite White Stripes record, that I started considering Jack White beyond just “that guy in that garage band.” My mistake, of course – there’s plenty of evidence on those early Stripes records of White’s intriguing blend of blues, rock and soul, and of his prodigious talent as a player and a curator of influences. It didn’t help that his most famous band was his worst one – I enjoyed his power-pop outfit The Raconteurs and his swampy blues band The Dead Weather quite a bit more. But by the time of Blunderbuss, his quite good debut solo record, I was on board.
I mention all this because my appreciation for Jack White is like a train gaining steam, and I fear that White’s third solo record, Boarding House Reach, may have derailed that train, at least temporarily. I’m listening for the fifth time right now, and I still have no idea what he was thinking when assembling this thing. “Assembling” is the right word, too – this album sounds pieced together from jams and recording sessions that should have been thrown away. Boarding House Reach sounds like negative space, like White carefully excised all the parts that sound like songs, leaving only incoherence.
White himself describes this thing as bizarre, and that’s being kind. If you’ve heard “Connected By Love,” the sorta-swaying first single, you’ve heard one of the most complete and fulfilling songs here. Yes, it’s two chords over and over, and yes, the organ and gospel choir rub up uncomfortably with the buzzing synthesizer bass, and yes, it pretty much falls apart by the end, but it’s seriously one of the highlights. From there we just sink into nonsense. “Why Walk a Dog” would be a laughable b-side, yet here it’s given a prominent position. “Corporation” is five and a half minutes of formless jamming, followed by “Abulia and Akrasia,” a minute and a half of spoken-word filler. By the time you get to “Ice Station Zebra,” on which Jack White raps (“If Joe Blow says, yo, you paint like Caravaggio, you’ll respond, no, that’s an insult, Joe…”), half this record will have meandered by.
The second half is stronger without ever quite being strong. The guitar comes out for “Over and Over and Over,” a patchwork rock song with some piped-in-from-nowhere gospel-style backing vocals. It is, by far, the best song thus far, even if it does repeat its signature riff over and over and over. After that, “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is the definition of filler, “Respect Commander” is a mess, “Esmerelda Steals the Show” is the second definition of filler, and I don’t even know what “Get in the Mind Shaft” is, really. “What’s Done is Done” is a traditional country song about suicide, sung over a wavery synth noise and some bongos in a box. White saves the best song for last, which isn’t a high bar on this record, but “Humoresque” is still pretty good, a jazzy little ballad that he probably considers a joke. But it sports the album’s one interesting melody, so it wins.
I dove down song by song because there’s no way to talk about this album as a whole. It’s just a scattered thing, seemingly laughing at the very idea that these songs should connect in some way. Only a few minutes of this are worthwhile anyway, but some sense that this was meant to be an album and not a Jackson Pollack-style splattering of tones would be nice. I understand completely that this off-the-deep-end approach is intentional, and I’m absolutely certain Jack White doesn’t care if I don’t like it.
But I don’t like it. Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I have far too much of an attachment to songwriting and melody to praise something so disconnected from those things. Maybe Jack White has created his Kid A with Boarding House Reach, and in years to come it will be hailed as a masterpiece, and I’ll be on the outside looking in. It’s a pretty familiar place for me to be. I appreciate and applaud Jack White’s willingness to color outside the lines, to break out of his blues-rock rut here, but I would appreciate and applaud it more if the end result weren’t such a total mess.
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, we have this week’s other J band, Jukebox the Ghost. I’ve been hard on this Washington, D.C. trio of late as they transitioned away from their early, more progressive piano rock into a more streamlined pop sound. I may have gone so far as to mourn the band they used to be on my generally positive review of their self-titled fourth album. The more modern Jukebox creates infectious ear candy with clap-your-hands choruses, and I love that stuff. It’s just taken me longer than it should have to let go of the past and realize that what they’re giving me now is enough.
Well, I seem to have finally broken through that barrier with the band’s fifth album, Off to the Races. In fact, I think this thing is marvelous. Some of it is the band – they’ve upped the Queen influences here, without losing the toe-tapping, melodic bliss of their previous record. Hell, “Jumpstarted” begins with what can only be considered a minute-long tribute to Freddie Mercury, with singer/pianist Ben Thornewill giving that falsetto a workout. But then comes the beat and the chorus, and there’s Jukebox the Ghost, peeking through.
But some of it is just me. I’ve had to face the fact that I’m just in love with this sound, even when they drop the Queen pastiches and just play what they play. The album is front-loaded with Mercury – all of “Jumpstarted” sounds like they’ve been listening to nothing but Sheer Heart Attack for months, and single “Everybody’s Lonely” keeps that momentum going with a very Freddie piano figure and melody, and an absolutely wonderful dance-pop chorus. But as the album progresses, it becomes more Jukebox, and I like all that material just as much.
Case in point: “Fred Astaire.” This is just a delightful little pop song about love’s blissful blindness, and Thornewell sings it with such an energy that you can’t help but dance like the song’s protagonist. This one has been stuck in my head for more than a week. I’m also a big fan of the slower songs this time out, including the off-kilter “Time and I” and the more straightforward “See You Soon” and “Simple as 1 2 3.” Those last two deserve to be radio hits, the former with its sweeping “ooh-ooh” refrain and the latter with its gorgeous, naked optimism. These are songs the Ben Thornewill of the band’s first two albums would probably never write, but this Ben Thornewill wrote the hell out of them.
For his part, Tommy Siegel has become the Colin Moulding of this band. His songs aren’t as good as Thornewill’s, but they’re still worthy, and his voice isn’t as immediately captivating, but it still works. His best one this time is “Boring,” a barbed ode to growing old and lame. (“I’m a little ashamed to say, the house out in the suburbs calls my name…”) Siegel only contributes three this time, and they’re counterpoints to Thornewill’s boundless, colorful joy.
Speaking of colorful, that’s the name of the last song on the record, and it’s superb, an anthem for running through the streets with abandon. There’s a bit of a Springsteen feel to this song, and the band captures the galloping, anything-is-possible feel of Bruce’s best work. On an album where they also perfectly pay tribute to the late, great Freddie Mercury and, at the same time, firmly establish their buoyant sound. I’d say that’s an achievement. The only thing missing from Off to the Races, which clocks in at a mere 34 minutes, is one more song: their delirious single from last year, “Stay the Night,” would have fit perfectly. But when the worst thing you can say about an album is that you wish there were more of it, that’s pretty damn good.
Next week, Sloan and Eels, most likely. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.