The Dead Weather Get Better

May 14, 2010, 12:13 a.m.

What a difference ten months can make. Less than a year ago, The Dead Weather released their first album, “Horehound.” Jack White’s newest supergroup found White at the drums, leaving lead guitar and vocal duties to Dean Fertita and The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, respectively. While the debut showed flashes of brilliance, it was more interesting than exciting. It hinted at the band’s potential more than it actually realized it. In just ten months The Dead Weather have bridged the gap between possibility and reality. With their sophomore effort, “Sea of Cowards,” The Dead Weather settle into themselves and fulfill the potential hinted at in “Horehound.”

The Dead Weather Get Better The opening track demonstrates The Dead Weather’s growing assurance in the band dynamic. “Blue Blood Blues” establishes the self-imposed resistance by which the album lives and dies. It shakes with angry defiance. The guitars punch in staccato over a simple drum beat before falling into an easy guitar riff, but the music continually undercuts itself. The song breaks down as soon as it begins to assume a standard form. The obvious riff falters after one bar, outdone by a single, defiant crunch of Dean Fertita’s guitar. The song constantly denies the listener’s expectations. With The Dead Weather, assumed harmonies dissolve. The instruments compete with each other. The vocals oppose the instruments, and the two rarely coexist harmoniously. “Check your lips at the door woman / Shake your hips like battleships,” shouts White against the music. “Blue Blood Blues” struggles against itself in typical Jack White fashion, providing the raw energy upon which The Dead Weather relies.

“Sea of Cowards” is an exploration of rhythm and sexuality. It is a triumph of the instinctual over the systematic. Charisma replaces structure. The bass drives heavy. The drums compel you to swagger. Songs like “Hustle and Cuss” trust a primal groove to give direction. It is the most potent realization of The Dead Weather’s exploratory mode. “Hustle and Cuss” starts with a simple bass riff and unconsciously extends outward. The song follows the intuition of feeling. While the song gains energy as it progresses, The Dead Weather are experts in the use of silence to contrast rhythm. The music grows and fades with a breathing instinct.

The Dead Weather’s defining antagonism simultaneously limits their potential for success. “Sea of Cowards” thrives on opposition. The music derives its energy from denial. Consequently, the album lacks the order of melody that might give The Dead Weather the popularity enjoyed by The White Stripes. Indeed, the album’s highlight comes in “Die by the Drop,” in which they forgo instinct for a familiar song structure. It maintains the volatile mood but does away with the exploration. This song suggests a possible new direction for The Dead Weather. Will their next album perfect their exploratory instincts, or will they use “Die by the Drop” as a model for structured swagger? Hopefully we will only have to wait 10 months to find out.

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