The Dead Weather

Sea of Cowards

(Third Man; 2010)

By Dom Sinacola | 7 July 2010

Like Nick Cave’s Grinderman, who have just recently announced the physical manifestation of their sophomore album, which will probably be about being old and horny and gross, the Dead Weather exist to do one thing and one thing only: to full-on gurn for 35 minutes. Theirs is music in leather and rivets, is music that sniffs a carton of milk to challenge the date stamped on the flap; and fitfully, each track is propelled by a barrel-scraping riff and the anthemic screeching of either Jack White or Allison Mossheart—these and almost nothing else, save the thankful emergence of a Farfisa organ in “Gasoline” or what amounts to the closest White will ever come to a video-game-ripe electro-squiggle for the opening to “The Difference Between Us.” Mossheart mostly yelps, her voice somewhere between homicidal and parasitic; White mostly mugs for the camera—for all cameras, really; the other two guys caulk in the remaining black space with obligatory drum patter and keyboard noodling, generally just egging on White and Mossheart with the frontpersons’ whole sleazy, jilted lovers tête-à-tête. All this one should remember from Horehound (2009), the band’s debut; Sea of Cowards is almost identical. And just like Grinderman, whose mothers were right: their faces have stuck like that.

I promise I’ll save the struggling erection metaphors for when Grinderman: Grind Harder lands cold and wet in our laps. Until then, the Dead Weather have released another quickly recorded batch of entirely unmemorable, unpleasantly limp rock music showcasing Jack White’s increasingly irrelevant take on garage, blues, post-punk, and guitar refuse. Jack White is this band, make no mistake: one can sense his paws all over every hurried inch, and not to the extent that he fascistically bullies every other member into accepting his rightness and leadership, but to the extent that he is the White Stripes, that this music is, at its core, the music that he wants to make, that he’s good at making, and that he’s pumping out on a frighteningly prolific schedule. And as a hybrid of everything White’s proven he’s more than capable of bashing out, Sea of Cowards, which by no means is helped by the terseness of time between it and their debut, is as stupefyingly workmanlike as everything White’s done—and will continue to do—since Get Behind Me Satan (2005).

He’s done a lot, too, every misshapen, uninteresting record and commissioned movie single one more nail in the coffin he’s already escaped. There may be nothing enlightening I can add to a discussion about this band—twill go unchecked into the void—especially because I find Sea of Cowards firmly entrenched (I imagine German WWI helmets; Mossheart unable to see through her bangs, comically sized cigarette burning to a stub, protruding cock-eyed from her grimaced slit of a mouth) in the precise middleground between good and bad. But the very experience of my listening to it is evidence enough that somewhere, somehow I still expect something wonderful out of a musician I once, somewhere and somehow, deeply respected. I should have given up last year; I should have given up with the second Raconteurs album; I should have given up with the first; I should have known all further effort was futile when Alicia Keys kicked the piano bench away and stood up and hollered in White’s face—but an inkling of success still urges me forward.

I imagine the same is true for many people who have followed White from his first Detroit singles—back when we were still kept in the dark about who this similarly surnamed Meg was to him—to this. This, though functionally an accomplished advance in all things White-bred, bears none of the urgency, excitement, and unbridled, untapped talent for which White Stripes albums were once worth devouring. This is easy, easily one of the most boring records I’ve heard all year. And it’s a criticism I’ve lobbed at all of White’s projects since “side-” became his primary prefix/source of income. Yet, on an almost annual basis, I return to say my piece and toss one more sign of squandered good will into the aforementioned void.

In the everyday, with everyday people, I may say I hate this album. “Sea of Cowards? I hate that” as I dip a truffle tater tot in Tapatío. Of course, as I’ve just stated and as the rating above attests, I feel about as neutrally towards this album as I ever possibly could (five percent give or take for the sake of posterity). Those three words are mostly the economical accumulation of four years of exasperation; I don’t hate the Dead Weather and I don’t hate this album, I just wonder—with increasingly difficultly mustered brainpower—if this is the logical extension of the music Jack White was making five years ago, music I still find so engaging.

The answer, I think, lies in the simple and often overlooked fact that Jack White has never released a solo album. Of course, the White Stripes could serve as the solo-project-that-wasn’t, but in more than enough interviews, Jack’s implied that, despite all pejorative comments heaved at Meg White regarding her prowess on the drums, the White Stripes wouldn’t be the same without her. What would a Jack White solo album sound like, then? If every album and band that White fronts or has fronted already caters to his every musical whim—and we have no evidence otherwise—then how much more license does White’s music deserve? He obviously enjoys playing with people, enjoys sharing, but at no point does he ever seem restrained as a songwriter—restraint, in fact, has been at the heart of his music since Sympathy for the Record Industry was first coined, since shitty amps and shittier recording techniques introduced his spartan sensibilities to a public still mulling over the exact meaning of “lo-fi.”

What’s left but the very dregs of sound? Empiricism for empiricism’s sake? I’m not claiming that the only way Jack White could win back my heart is through some sort of winding, bombastic opus, sprouting tree-like further and further away from his roots—though that’d be curious, White wielding the bare, fable-like tendencies of a “Hardest Button to Button” with an orchestra, a Dave Fridmann, and a steelier ambition behind him—I just pessimistically think, once per year or so, where White can go next if the fruits of his artistic prowess and gaining notoriety plant him firmly within the tropes of this, this Dead Weather.

That said, the most ominous track here, “Old Mary,” is the album’s most promising and most obnoxious track, a grating slew of gibberish with tinges of religious portentousness and signs of something, anything, that isn’t rigorously stuck in the mold, the attitude, the facefolds of the album’s long-term gurn. The aforementioned “Hardest Button to Button” and a track like “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” (or, really, most of Elephant [2003]—I miss your voice, Mort Crim) were forefathers to “Old Mary”’s appeal, smirking but humorless, borderline atonal while somewhere, somehow married to a melody that may or may not emerge. But the lineage is just rudimentary; White knows this type of song, knows whatever types engendered this type of song within him, and this type of song is as it was seven years ago. Only now it feels obligatory—practiced and field-tested despite how quickly or rawly it was put to tape.

It’s like Mossheart wails, “I don’t want no sweetheart / I want a machine!” So here I am, dutifully returning to whatever Third Man outcrop White helps put on the map, using my real, full birthright of a name to both position myself within this so-called Sea of Cowards and to tether my ankle to the dock lest the tide carry me away. And what exactly makes us cowards? It’s not what White thinks, that we’re content to hide behind the Internet casting stones which, if returned, wouldn’t be able to find a target. No, what makes us cowards is that every so often, with frightening regularity, we fail to acknowledge how we most honestly feel inside. Instead we step up without second thought to cast one more stone over the edge and watch one more stone sink uselessly away.