The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards (2010)

The Dead Weather is what feels like Jack White’s umpteenth project, given that he seems to be a tremendous workaholic. After seeing The White Stripes through to the inevitable exhaustion, sparking the fresh and wonderful Raconteurs, it felt like just a matter of time until his tortured, intense cool would clash with the dangerous, leather-clad, Bonnie & Clyde aesthetic radiated by The Kills’ VV. I didn’t really react well to their first album – I thought there were amazing tracks on it, but it had a driven, repetitive, robotic onslaught of rhythm of extreme austerity which ended up sucking the life out of me every time I tried to listen to the entire record. I guess that’s why it took me so long to gather the courage to listen to Sea of Cowards (excuse the pun).

Source: avclub.com

This album takes the dry, brittle tone of Horehound and, through some arcane, twisted alchemy, makes it much meatier, much more poignant. The aggression from Horehound is still there, but it’s more harmoniously balanced with a renewed sensibility for the elusive “groove”. As always, VV and Jack White’s collaborations remind me of something from a Quentin Tarantino movie (the videos help in this imagery), but never as much as on this wonderful record, sounding as massive as the 21st century rock music allows, and as personal and groovy as a seventies cop show soundtrack, all at once. Picture, if you will, Starsky and Hutch with accents of Daft Punk and dubstep.

How can this be, you ask? I ask it of myself as well, believe me, and I think the key to understanding how The Dead Weather bring such odd extremes together in their music lies in their particularly crafted, unique sound and aesthetic. On the one hand, The Dead Weather is a heavily keyboard-reliant band, as most of the sounds driving the album are droning, convoluted, overgrown and infuriated variants of the Hammond organ, which, in spite of the almost sci-fi way it’s treated and upgraded in this music, is still quintessentially a seventies hallmark. On the other hand, VV brought with her a Kills staple – the pounding, simple and brutal song structure. As The Kills seemed to slightly steer away from their austere style on their latest album, The Dead Weather were diving in headfirst into the shallow, freezing, salty and abrasive water of this aggressive, ominous, unrelentingly cool rock. The combination of the twisted vintage sound and the raw song structure create a fascinating effect on Sea of Cowards – it’s probably one of the most muscular and intimidating albums of 2010, if not of the entire decade, in terms of relatively mainstream-friendly releases.

This is revenge music, music for people who perceive emotion as implicit conflict, a harsh and magnificent musical desert, at night, on the run, thirsty and inflamed, with nothing to lose and nothing to gain, single-minded, murderous, desperado rock. I know there’s such a thing as “desert rock” (Queens of the Stone Age are often classified as such, for example), but my feeling has nothing to do with genres – my opinion is that the animating force behind this record is a mood, an overwhelming energy crashing over the listener like sunstroke. Jack White uses an effect on his guitar in all of the bands he’s been in, which allows him to play notes much higher than usually attainable on the instrument (I think it’s called a pitch shifter), but it’s never worked so well as it does in The Dead Weather – the screaming, furious, haywire sound it creates complements the high tension this music entertains on every song and throughout the album like never before. But here’s the catch – as far as I know, it isn’t Jack White using the pitch shifter, at least not in The Dead Weather – the man plays drums in this band, which just makes the whole affair all the more impressive and electrifying, as those were his first instrument, if we’re to believe the tales he spins in the It Might Get Loud documentary.

Sea of Cowards crackles with attitude. This is the kind of album James Dean would’ve dug back in the day. It’s an album made by outlaws for outlaws, a truly engaging, bad ass experience of tremendous honesty and focus. I can’t really recommend it enough, it’s some of the best rock I’ve ever heard – simple, brutal, twisted and ferocious, it’s a pleasure to behold and to shudder at the sight of it. I wish more bands could muster up this kind of badassery, but then again, it’s really, really hard. Enjoy, while drinking straight from the bottle. See you soon!

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