There really is no questioning the influence the White Stripes have had on their musical peers and aspiring artists, nor questioning that the White Stripes have cemented their place in musical history as an act that will be remembered into the next generation. The question comes when examining Jack White as a solo artist.
Blunderbuss, White’s solo debut, goes out to the public April 24, 2012, but fans were given a chance to stream the entire album on iTunes starting April 16. Also, White and his label, Third Man Records, have already distributed three singles from Blunderbuss: “Love Interruption,” “Sixteen Saltines,” and “Freedom at 21,” which was at the core of a promotional exploit. One thousand vinyl copies of the single were tied to helium balloons and turned loose on the city of Nashville with instructions for whoever found them to report back on the label’s website where the vinyl was found and when.
Overall, Blunderbuss, while a collection of highly playable tracks, feels disjointed and chaotic. There is no real flow from song to song; each song feels like it is an entity standing on its own in the universe, independent of its counterparts. The blues-influenced rock sound that has become synonymous with Jack White is present in every track but not without a variety of ghosts hanging over each one. It’s as if White were reaching back through musical history to pull inspiration from different acts and eras as he created each new track. There is a definite feel of nostalgia with the Blunderbuss tracks, as can be said of all of White’s compositions, but the question this time around is what are we nostalgic for?
The first single from Blunderbuss, “Love Interruption,” blends the blues rock sound with a hint of something from the 1950s and ’60s in country music, an influence that is to be expected of White’s Nashville locale. The vintage harmonies White creates with guest vocalist Ruby Amanfu pull listeners through the song that asks for a romance that would be remembered later, and fondly, with such adjectives as “explosive,” “whirlwind,” and “destructive.” “I want love to roll me over slowly, stick a knife inside me and twist it all around,” is the opening lyric to “Love Interruption,” and the situation just seems to go downhill for White from there.
“Sixteen Saltines” is the second track on the album as well as the second single, a complete 180 degree turn away from the first single. For people using these singles to sample the album before buying it, the contrast between these two tracks is a prime example of what they will find on the rest of the album. I enjoyed both singles; in fact, they are at this point my picks for album highlights, but clearly for different reasons and in different ways.
“Sixteen Saltines” is the purest Jack White song on the album, the track least muddled by the vast conglomeration of influences White pulled from for the rest of Blunderbuss. In truth, “Sixteen Saltines” feels most influenced by the White Stripes with its heavy notes, heavy vocals and heavy lyrics, its infectious drum cadence and guitar riffs. It is equal parts “Icky Thump” and “Seven Nation Army,” giving White’s fans coming in from his previous efforts something comfortable and accessible.
A boisterous suspended cymbal and piano marriage finds a comfortable home in the midsection of the album. “Hypocritical Kiss” crescendos to a cacophonous swell, as piano played as percussion is joined by crashing suspended cymbals and then fades out in a series of glissandos. “Weep Themselves to Sleep” offers sharp, crisp, studio-quality instrumental accompaniment—a three-note piano progression and two beat sounds crash on the cymbals that are repeated between verses and choruses—paired with lo-fi, garage vocals that remind listeners this is indeed an independent release.
My first instinct when I heard the Rudy Toombs cover “I’m Shakin’” was to comment on how drastically different the track is from the rest of the album. But as I listened to it and the rest of the album a few more times, two things happened. First, I realized the track is in fact, really no more different than any other one on an album which changes in sound and style from track to track. Second, I began comparing it, unconsciously in the beginning and then more consciously, to “Wings on Fire,” a track from the Jackson Rathbone vehicle, 100 Monkeys.
But “Wings on Fire” was not the comparison I wanted to make publicly, at least not without backing it up with a reason why. The vocal phrasing patterns and the cadence of the lyrics is similar, and the melody carries a similar sound, but what does that all mean in terms of the history of American music? After circling the airport a few more times, I eventually landed on a word I think is going to be the closest I will find to a fit: Jive—a hand clap, snare drum and high-hat jive to get listeners singing along and maybe tapping a toe or two.
As a first solo release, Jack White’s Blunderbuss is a relative success. There is enough of his previous efforts— with the White Stripes as well as the Raconteurs and Dead Weather—to hold the interest of his returning fans. Yet, it is a solo effort that should earn him some new fans. If you have been a fan of any of White’s music, Blunderbuss deserves a moment of your attention and if you are new to his sound, this is a good place to start.
Blunderbuss is available April 24, 2012, from all major retailers in CD and vinyl formats (where available) and mp3 format online.