It’s damn near impossible to hate Jack White. In fact, most complaints that I’ve heard or read are relatively superficial ones that have little to do with his music and more to do how his music is presented visually. White is a classicist rock musician, deeply rooted in and respectful of its past. It’s clear that he’s studied the records on his turntable intently and the footnotes of his term papers (or albums) are clearly audible.
Sea Of Cowards is the second album from the Dead Weather, a project where White finds himself behind the drum kit instead of center stage, even though the focus is squarely on his slight frame. I did a double take when I heard the band was releasing a new record as it was only last summer when they released their debut.
It’s not a misprint; Sea Of Cowards follows the first album in unbelievably short order. Less than ten months. You see, part of being that “classicist” is recognizing that most of the magic leaves the studio after the second take and that Led Zeppelin didn’t have three years in between albums.
One thing to understand, however, is that that Led Zeppelin’s III was created by Led Fucking Zeppelin. So as good, honorable, and talented as Jack White is, he is still not on par with the Hammer of the Gods. Because you don’t necessarily get to the level of Led Zeppelin, or Son House, or even the Flat Duo Jets just by listening intently to their records. That kind of talent considers the path that the artist has taken up to that point and it cannot be learned through passive listening.
Judging by Sea Of Cowards, White’s past is one of isolation—where the music coming from his stereo offers a way out and, if he could emulate those sounds just enough, he might be provided the keys to that glorious rock and roll universe.
It worked—to a point—as White’s replica is spot on. He’s done a great job of capturing the sounds and atmosphere of those influential records while not sounding like he’s actually lived them. When you hear a line like “Now until the moment of your last breath” (“Old Mary”), you feel like it’s just a bunch of words strewn together to sound morbid. There’s no Mary, really. It’s just some shit straight out of a notebook used to highlight a creepy closing track.
I’m not suggesting that White needs to kill a man in self-defense and spend time in prison like Son House to get perspective, but I would like White to dig deep into his own world to come up with material that sounds as real as the music he’s transcribed with so much devotion.
Like Horehound before it, Sea Of Cowards is a great listen. It’s full of analog warmth, meaty guitars, “Hocus Pocus” keyboards, and head-nodding rhythms. The bursts of feedback, weird guitar squeals and nifty breakdowns will bring a smile to your face and they give the album a bit of a “Wow” factor that’s not present in the source material.
If it seems that I’m overlooking the fact that Dead Weather is an ensemble cast, it’s only because it’s very clear that Jack White is driving this vehicle and his sonic fingerprints are all over Sea Of Cowards.
Vocalist Alison Mosshart makes an impression whenever she’s allowed the microphone, but her vocals are often treated with distortion and effects to the point that you could mistake them for White himself if you weren’t paying attention.
The material that Mosshart belts out happens to be the best stuff on Sea Of Cowards. When the two share equal billing (“Hustle And Cuss”), the two wrap their jive talking around an infectious groove that proves to be the album’s standout cut.
“The Difference Between Us,” a forlorn song voiced by Mosshart and layered over a ton of reverb, should probably be the track to arrive at Top 40 radio in either a perfect world, or at least a world where Top 40 radio was still a relevant adjective.
While White has the privilege of steering the Dead Weather blooze behemoth, he also has the distinction of driving it off the shoulder on a few spots.
“I’m Mad” is full of neato breakdowns and weirdo dynamics, but the distraction is again the lack of lyrical focus. The best example of these rushed phrases is on “Looking At The Invisible Man,” probably the worst song on Sea Of Cowards. Running on nothing but a funky keyboard and a tasty drum pattern, White spits out some of the dumbest couplets of his career (“I’m the invisible man / I’m like a newspaper / You can’t read me!”). It’s the type of rhyme that I come up with to entertain my three-year-old daughter when we’re messing around with beats on her Vtec keyboard.
Has White spread himself so thin and subscribed to the idea of spontaneity so rigidly that he’s willing to release something with such blatant missteps? Perhaps, but even when White and company stumble, they still look great doing it.
Sea Of Cowards stands as a unique tribute to those classic rock albums with the cover wear in his collection, and for that, it’s worth your attention. The shame is that while it may be a great record to spin during a summer bonfire, there’s not a lot of fire within it to get you to consider making the music that may be lurking inside of you.
And for an album spearheaded by someone like Jack White, who’s been such a great student of rock and roll, not delivering something that is inspiring enough for others to learn from is probably the worst form of criticism.