Jack White, Boarding House Reach
Download: Connected By Love; Corporation; Over And Over And Over; Ice Station Zebra
Who does Jack White think he is? Well, judging by the cover to Boarding House Reach, a smoothly airbrushed simulacrum of Keanu Reeves, which rather flatters both men, in complementary ways. But the question remains pertinent due to White’s restless probing of musical boundaries, with each new release wrong-footing listeners by shifting from blues to pop to prog to goth to whichever new cloud his head is in at the moment. So, who does Jack White think he is this time?
Hard to tell from the single “Connected By Love”, which opens with a slow, momentous synth buzz burring behind White’s passionate entreaties to the object of his affection; it’s a sort of electro-blues, which gradually expands via gospelly backing vocals, strident organ solo and one of Jack’s signature bursts of splintered guitar, into something genuinely unique, in touch with his blues roots but straining for some new expression of emotion.
Things become a bit clearer with “Corporation”, which finds him squealing with delight about the prospect of starting a corporation (isn’t he one already?), over a shuffling funk-fusion groove of clavinet and congas. Having expanded his accompanists with a plethora of seasoned soul, funk and jazz session players, White’s clearly had great fun jamming with them, recording the results on much the same basic analogue gear he used as a teenager, and “Corporation” offers the first indication of where that’s taking him here.
There’s an ever-present feel of the extempore about these tracks, which sometimes seem to succeed through sheer persistence, and sometimes struggle to coalesce into something worthwhile. The choogling funk clavinet returns for “Ice Station Zebra”, alongside declamatory piano chords and tumbling drums, epitomising White’s rap about pursuing one’s individual direction; but the blending of electric piano, organ, cuica, choral voices and synth-sheet backdrop over the shuffling Latin rhythm of “Get In The Mind Shaft” just results in a bit of a mess.
“Over And Over And Over” is better, with White’s meteorological metaphors and references to the onerous burdens of Atlas and Sisyphus harnessed to an infectiously waspish guitar riff; the resulting prog-metal anthem is both heavy and hummable, positively Zep-tastic in the way it hints at uncontrollable urges and mythic destinies. Elsewhere, “What’s Done Is Done” is a fairly straight piano blues, and “Ezmerelda Steals The Show” a poem recited over waltzing guitar arpeggios, while the combination of bustling guitar riff, organ and total dropout lacunae puts the devotional “Respect Commander” well in the shade of Hendrix’s long, jammed version of “Voodoo Chile”.
Overall, it’s an entertaining, multifaceted set, albeit weakened by a tendency to pursue slim ideas and dead-end notions – a clutter of synths, a gypsy fiddle, a Dvorak melody, a comedy announcement – that give Boarding House Reach a rather fragmentary character. Which, I suppose, reflects Jack White’s own at this moment.
Nina Simone, The Colpix Singles
Download: Willow Weep For Me; Summertime; Work Song; Blackbird
Nina Simone’s early success with “I Loves Ya, Porgy” earned her a contract with Colpix Records – who promptly ignored her unique blend of jazz, gospel, classical and blues influences by releasing the cantering country-pop oddity “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow” as her label debut. A delicious pairing of the gospel standard “Children Go Where I Send You” with an oozingly soulful “Willow Weep For Me” quickly restored Simone’s direction; but her vocals were of such richness that arrangers were often tempted to swaddle them in lush orchestrations.
As the live album Nina Simone At Town Hall demonstrated in songs like “Summertime”, she was better served by a striking concert reverb, with the simple walking bass and brushed snare better suiting her extempore piano style. Covers of “Work Song” and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” further cemented her reputation as a bluesy interpreter, but the pared-down talking-drum, handclaps and vocal arrangement of this 2CD set’s closing “Blackbird” reflects Simone’s expanding artistic maturity in the early Sixties.
Chris Smither, Call Me Lucky
Download: Blame’s On Me; Maybellene; Nobody Home; Everything On Top; Lower The Humble
Chris Smither may be Americana’s most underrated talent, offering acute observations about life’s bitter ironies in a baritone drawl as worn as antique leather, its weary tone belied by the sprightliness of his fingerstyle guitar. The sardonic album title is reflected in the wry, mordant humour of tracks like “Blame’s On Me” and “Lower The Humble”, where he advises that “the lower the humble, the shorter the fall” – a precariousness further addressed in the carousel metaphor of “Everything On Top”, with time constantly carrying us above and below – although, as he notes with a twist of bitterness, “everything on top is what we once called the underground”.
A cover of “Maybellene” relocates Chuck Berry’s breakthrough hit in the country-blues tradition, bowling along nimbly amidst subtle harbingers of violin; while elsewhere Smither’s band proves endlessly flexible on the jaunty jugband stomp “Change Your Mind” and shuffling folk-rocker “Nobody Home”, which brings echoes of “Maggie’s Farm” to his cogent commentary on the lack of true communication in the age of social media.
Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain
Download: May Your Kindness Remain; Lift The Lonely From My Heart; Rough Around The Edges; Kindness Of Strangers
Courtney Marie Andrews takes depression as the general theme of May Your Kindness Remain, citing the widespread human fallout caused by failure to fulfill the fanciful promises of the American Dream.
The characters in songs such as “Kindness Of Strangers” and “Rough Around The Edges” are paralysed by isolation, social ineptitude and the lingering wounds of failure: “the past was cruel, and it caught up with me,” as she notes over the miasma of ambient guitar drones and piano skilfully assembled by producer Mark Howard, who brings a similarly weather-beaten tone to that applied on albums by Dylan, Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams.
Elsewhere, big vibrato guitar chords haunt “Lift The Lonely From My Heart”, an expression of how loneliness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whilst one is “pining, mining for a feeling I’m not finding”.
Though hobbled by the occasional cliche, it’s an album with its heart in the right place, most articulately presented in Andrews’ passionate delivery of the title-track, a testament to empathy as the true riches of life.
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