Blunderbuss (Third Man)
by Scott Deckman
I hate to use the term “watered-down White Stripes,” which I’m sure someone out there has used to describe Blunderbuss, but I’m almost forced to. At his best, Jack White sounds authentic and dangerous, a pyscho-blues devil whose wicked chops fit into the punk paradigm better than the shredding of most punk rock guitarists. The man has awesome feel and feral licks, plus he’s a unique lyricist with an authoritative, easily-recognizable voice. And remember, he doesn’t need technical virtuosity, because at his best, White’s guitar playing really is a virtue. The voters for Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time knew what they were doing placing him 70th on that list (though that’s quite a demotion from senior writer David Fricke’s original list for the magazine where White was ranked number 17). Some may disagree with either placement, but who cares? You know the saying about opinions…
But here’s the rub: He can be involved with Loretta Lynn, the Dead Weather, or the Raconteurs all he wants – or in this case, release records under his own name, but Jack White will always be the White Stripes, and this is close enough to the original article to suffer from comparison. And I don’t have the patience to give the latter two bands much of a listen (okay, you’re talented. Let someone else have the ball for a while). Maybe he’s trying to be the Eric Clapton or Neil Young of his generation: Two classic rockers I never much cared for, but rockers who nonetheless have been able to shift genres and decades with aplomb. But now that every whiz kid with Pro Tools is able to morph into whatever he wants in a flash, that kind of diversity has lost some of its cachet.
Since I didn’t know I was going to review Blunderbuss until quite late, I had previously chanced to read part of the review at AllMusic.com (which I never willfully do, read other reviews before doing my own. I may not be getting rich doing this, but I have some ethics), and I agree with them that of all the White Stripes efforts, this shades closest to Get Behind Me Satan, which is my second-favorite album by them. Well, this ain’t no Satan, not even a Beelzebub or minor demon. While Blunderbuss is filled with piano and slower songs, the occasional vintage-sounding organ and that distinct voice of his, it’s not nearly as strong a record.
“Sixteen Saltines” starts off like a White Stripes song with that guitar-from-hell and our Boy Wonder doing his falsetto best to make us forget that we’ve already heard this note before, only better. And really, does neo-garage/psycho-blues get any better than White Blood Cells? If it does, I haven’t heard that record. A song about jealousy, I will give White credit here for some adroit wordlplay, though with that high-pitched, fast delivery of his, only those blessed with Rosetta Stone ears will catch most of it.
“I’m Shakin'” is a fun, funky song which relies on a snaky, sexy riff, plus some awkward gospel-sounding backup singers. But it’s also a cover. And I think it’s pretty interesting and fitting that the best song on Blunderbuss mimics his lighter Stripes side to the nth, “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.” Though even here he’s poking fun at himself, because in the ’00s, who was hipper than our Poor Boy? The song features an almost-calypso beat, piano, and acoustic strings, and is a charming, fun effort that shows the way forward. Not a rocker. Doesn’t pretend to be. But not a bit derivative.
Making stabs at milquetoast nostalgia is not benefitting anyone. White needs to go back to what he knows best (I know, here I am giving him career advice, as if), or he needs a musical divorce – a clean break from his past. (He had a real one of those last year.) Blunderbuss is not good, but it’s not quite bad enough to be bad. Though if he keeps this up, he’s gonna be headed for the other B word, a sobriquet all true artists dread: Boring. It’s up to him to right the ship.