Emerging from the shadows to release a full-length record for the first time in five years, America’s The Dead Weather has returned. The group’s third album, Dodge and Burn, finds a reinvigorated band which has embraced its scruffy rocker identity and strength.
The quartet maintains a stellar connection, which is obvious in the ‘live’ feel of the disc’s rich, deep, analog mix. From the outset, charismatic vocalist Alison Mosshart is fierce. Her confrontational shriek in “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” is balanced and bested with her horrified scream to introduce “Open Up”. Weaving, slipping, even stabbing into the mix, guitarist Dean Fertita lends a feral aura and raucous snarl. Songs gain venom via equal portions of bold swank and smoldering bite, courtesy bassist “Little” Jack Lawrence. Bandleader and drummer Jack White thumps, thunders, and grooves along, keeping a relaxed tempo and an accurate time. Visceral, whimsical, or beautiful, Fertita’s synth, organ, and piano parts lend depth to tunes already worming themselves into listeners’ collective unconscious.
Like White’s many incarnations featuring a sharp, limited color palette – black and yellow for Third Man Records, azure for his solo band, red and white for The White Stripes, and so on – The Dead Weather’s latest platter seems a beguiling exercise in constrained songwriting. Picture this scenario: four extremely well-rounded, adept musicians challenge themselves, driving themselves to greater heights by demanding they work around a self-imposed barrier. The hard rocking record interestingly presents 12 tracks, eleven of which are composed well within a narrow, vaguely Led Zeppelin infused, blues-based spectrum.
These leaner tracks have bold, minimalist arrangements. The mood, tone, and delivery of most of this material is similar, which makes for an exciting ‘start to finish’ listening binge. Most songs aren’t “pretty” or “polished”: the darker, wilder, rolling atmosphere flies in the face of modern, squeaky clean, quantized and Auto-tuned pop. White knows how to create and deliver crisp, relevant pop, having won his tenth Grammy for 2014’s genre-bender tune “Lazaretto”. Dodge and Burn thus isn’t an antithesis to cutesy tween radio fare; rather, it’s the roughed-up, dark, brooding cousin that only likes to play music after midnight.
Sharpest definition alights from similar basic musical meter in all 12 tunes. White’s drums solidly groove and move. If he swings or shuffles – and as an appreciated, cultivated nod to early bluesmen and jazz cats, he does – his bandmates follow those immersed, spontaneous forays seamlessly. Then things start to get a little hazy; momentum builds. Fertita’s overdriven guitar riffs and notes deftly bend and maneuver around jagged angles and fancied curves, Lawrence’s bass guitar licks fuzz through crackling bars, and Mosshart’s vocals retain the honest, incendiary, rough-hewn edge for which they’ve become so acclaimed. Once Fertita’s synth leads kick in, you know it’ll be intense.
There are plenty of convention challenges, most notably the lack of an over-arching melody during the synth-saturated, jazz ‘headed’ first third of “Three Dollar Hat”. Sonic experiments with tone continue: reverb and delay are abundant. Vocoder is applied in spots. The beeping synth tangent in “Cop and Go” is dizzying, giddy. “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles”)’s unison guitar and bass lines produce a choppy, serrated effect. No effort is made towards perfection – strings ring, there’s mic bleed, beginnings are jagged, endings are raw, and so on. The intentional, slightly askew stabs and swerves in “Cop and Go” and “Let Me Through” add an off-kilter charm. “Mile Markers”, formerly a hidden track snippet on the LP label of 2010’s Sea of Cowards, has a deliciously vicious sting by way of an octave effect on Fertita’s guitar. On the same song, Lawrence’s ripping bass tone acquaints itself with extreme metal’s territory, in the amount of ferocious gritty breakup, and sheer mule-kicking ‘unexpected’ factor. There’s a reader’s challenge, too: the album’s vague, witty title may refer to conversational barbs: to dodge an insult, or land a burn. Or perhaps it refers to analog photography, as the high-contrast, limited color scheme on the album art reflects.
After spending time a little chaotic and unhinged, The Dead Weather cleans up well. As with 2009’s Horehound, this disc ends with a dramatic ballad. Where Horehound‘s finale, “Will There Be Enough Water”, stayed pretty close to home, “Impossible Winner” from Dodge and Burn reflects far closer to the melodic, moody, classic pop rock roots of Fertita, Lawrence, and White. What’s changed is the instrumentation: the compelling, emotional number features piano, strings, and nicely sung vocals.
Dodge and Burn is lyrically stronger than Sea of Cowards. Confident, sensual provocatrice Mosshart’s prosodic highlights include “Buzzkill(er)” and “Impossible Winner”. “Buzzkill(er)”, partially an artfully disguised reverse-psychology keening, is a fantastic delivery of both introspection and agitation. She emotes “Oh Lord, I’ve got no mind for you; I will not please. No mercy shall be given me; down in Tennessee.” and later, “Good Lord, won’t you forget about me”. This cut’s prose is so well-written, that at it’s initial launch online, it garnered some genuine ire, initially panned as blasphemous.
Two pairs of tracks released during 2013 and 2014 seem slightly more ambitious, but, none suffer. Dodge and Burn is tantalizingly hedonistic rock you can feel. The stark and volatile guitar, the beefy bass, the textural synth, the genuinely intriguing vocals, all tied together by the steady groove of the drums, elicits an irresistible attraction. If you’re unsold three or four songs in, The Dead Weather’s latest brand of ‘gothic blues’ probably isn’t going to be for you. Excepting the melodic, astute piano ballad as the album’s coda, eleven of the cuts are variations on a theme. It’s part backwater smoky nightclub blues, part 70s classic hard rock, part wild abandon, part punk. It’s got equal garnishes of tuneful classy Britpop, glitchy electronica, and quasi-jazz inspired percussion, to add up to an album that moves listeners. It challenges, not with overt themes, but subtle nuances. Like the Morse coded promo stickers given to fans, sometimes, it’s not the notes they’re playing, but the spaces in between. Just… rock out.
I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)
Let Me Through
Three Dollar Hat
Lose The Right
Cop and Go
Dean Fertita – Guitar, keyboard, backing vocals
Jack Lawrence – Bass guitar, backing vocals
Alison Mosshart – Vocals, occasional guitar
Jack White – Drums, percussion, occasional vocals