Boarding House Reach Photo: wikimediacommons.org
White Tries Something New, Stumbles, and Teaches a Lesson About Rock
In 2007, the White Stripes played the Ottawa Bluesfest, bringing their signature quirk, energy, and showmanship with them. In the week leading up to the show, various local media criticized the decision to have a “non-blues” artist as such a prominent headliner.
The response from frontman Jack White was succinct and characteristically quick-witted.
Someone said the White Stripes don’t play the blues, he quipped on stage. They must be colourblind.
The White Stripes didn’t last much longer beyond that summer, entering a hiatus that would end in 2011 with an announcement the duo were closing the book on things. Of course, no one expected garage-rock icon Jack White to rest on his laurels.
Cut to 2018 and Jack’s released his third solo album, Boarding House Reach, an eclectic mix of ideas that seems almost haphazardly thrown together into some sort of structure resembling a record. Under most normal circumstances, this would be a recipe for another hit collection of memorable songs.
Unfortunately, the reality to this listener’s ears is that White may be out of ideas – or at least, out of good ideas.
Some background: I’ve been a fan of White’s ever since the distinctive riff of the White Stripes’ hit single “Seven Nation Army” hit my ears. The band’s unique energy, made up of Jack’s madman charisma and guitar acrobatics and supported by the metronomic beats of drummer Meg White, captured my attention when I was a teenager.
Jack White Photo: wikimediacommons.org
I devoured everything Jack White-related, and imitated his guitar playing as best I could. I was a completely devoted fan, and when White announced side projects The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, I followed diligently.
In fact, his last two solo albums, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, came into regular rotation in my headphones. When White announced Boarding House Reach, I was sold.
Until I heard it.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: I’m not a fan of what this album’s doing. There are ideas, concepts, sounds, melodies, and riffs that absolutely stand out, but it’s hard to consider anything a proper song. And where White would jump from style to style on past albums, there’s a ramshackle nature to Boarding House Reach that just misses the mark.
In part, this might be my fault.
I’ve been thinking more and more about rock music these days. Increasingly, I return to sounds from the mid-to-late nineties, where grunge and alt rock pushed the boundaries of the genre. Ironically, in the nineties, I was more concerned with watching Fred Penner and Mr. Dressup than I was with the state of rock artistry, but I digress.
Lately, there’s a sheen of perfectionism, of ironed-out over-production on music. The most dynamic and exciting music I listen to is either electronic or on the fringe of things. Pop music, country music – there’s a uniformity and similarity to so much of it. Rap, too.
And I have to admit I find it surprising. In such a polarized society, where politics hew to one extreme or another, it’s remarkable that more music doesn’t capture the chaos and energy I see around me. There is plenty to rail against, and yet the punk renaissance hasn’t happened. The rock rebirth seems far away. There’s plenty of potential but little movement.
I fully expect that in a year or two we’ll have another resurgence in meaningful, impactful rock music. These things are cyclical, after all, and as much excitement and activity as rap and hip hop have had, it’s already clear what styles and trends in that genre will lead to a step back and a reassessment.
I don’t bring this up to try and draw battle lines in a “Rock vs. Rap” argument. I bring it up to illustrate the wax-and-wane process of culture and music. In fact, a side effect of rap’s popularity is its clear influence on other genres and the mixing and exchange of ideas across these lines.
And that’s sort of where Boarding House Reach by Jack White wants to be – straddling lines between genres, blurring these definitions, pushing boundaries.
It doesn’t work as well as it should, despite White’s embrace of modern guitars (he’s known for his love of pawn-shop specials), unfamiliar session musicians (pros from the rap, jazz, and even electronic genres), and new approaches to composition (apparently, White sequestered himself in an apartment to write the album in a week).
I do admire how much he’s pushing his own envelope here, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t really connect. White’s a songwriter, above all else, and yet half of these songs are devoid of any sort of structure, instead focusing on cool ideas and sounds and mash-ups. There’s a madcap feel to it, but it’s all over the place, like White’s throwing things at the wall and seeing what will stick. That would be fine, except halfway through most of these meandering compositions, they take an abrupt left turn into a new genre. I didn’t think the guy who wrote “Fell in Love With a Girl” would ever be this interested in bongos.
There’s a directionless feel to this album, and in this day and age, it’s hard not to think this is a necessary misfire that’ll speed up the coming revolution. Some of these ideas are genuinely interesting – but an album shouldn’t leave you going, “Oh, neat,” it should get itself stuck in your stereo and refuse to be removed.
It’s going to happen. White will come back with something new, whether it’s a side project or a more focused follow-up. It’s just a matter of when, and what it sounds like.
About the author: Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he’s an aspiring novelist. When he’s not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found noodling on a guitar or out exploring another side of Ottawa.
Not to change your opinion but have you listened to the interview http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06392hn