Jack White – Boarding House Reach

Just when you thought Jack White couldn’t get any Jack White-ier, we get this. Is Jack White the new Sly Stone, or Bootsy Collins, or even Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry? Three veritable madmen of rock, who nevertheless rewrote the rule book, completely submerged themselves in the world of music, as both performers and producers, and (lest we forget) are all alive and kicking?!

Maybe. However, as we all know, there is a very thin line between genius and madness. Thus, White is careering dangerously towards the latter with this, his third solo album, despite the spirited, if looser vibe that permeates throughout, aided by a long cast of musicians and singers.

Boarding House Reach, as is his modus operandi, recorded on old analogue equipment (quarter-inch four-track tape recorder, a simple mixer), but apparently put together using a computer. Legend has it that Chris Rock told him that nobody actually cares about how it’s done, and this got White thinking. While he is still obviously tethered to his blues-garage roots, his restless adventurism knows no bounds, as everything bar the veritable kitchen sink is thrown into the mix; pop, rock, gospel, soul, funk, electronics, psychedelia, hip-hop, punk, blues, garage and more. Yet there’s still that audible re-tracing of going back to the vintage heritage of the 60s and early 70s in particular. Unsurprisingly, however, the focus is sometimes blurred and chaotic, with some of the concepts behind the album wayward and simplistic, even if it sounds like White has finally released the shackles and is at times just having a bit of a laugh.

Most of the best ones here have already seen the light of day, such as the big soul-blues burner ‘Connected by Love’, the experimental and fun glam-funk of ‘Corporation’, where Golden Earring meets LCD Soundsystem via a whacked out Sly Stone, and infused with crazy bongo passages, as White wonders out loud about starting a corporation: “Who’s with me?”; and on ‘Over and Over and Over’, the most White Stripes-esque song on here, where a hard rock edge verges on the theatrical via a comic falsetto, aka The Darkness.

Elsewhere, ‘What’s Done Is Done’ is an old-fashioned gospel-country-soul visitation, with added psychedelic quirks, co-vocalist Esther Rose counteracting the country-affectation of White. Meanwhile, ‘Get In the Mind Shaft’ is a weird sci-fi-funk-pop groove where White recalls visiting an old abandoned house and playing the piano for hours, for the first time. It’s weird but strangely wonderful. ‘Respect Commander’ is a sped up, spaced-out funk-rock that morphs into a downright dirgey Hendrix blues escapade, White unleashing his axe for some mental riffage.

Elsewhere, things don’t go quite so well. ‘Why Walk A Dog?’ sees White exaggerate (as he is one to do on occasion) both his vocal and guitar for this minimalist electro-rocker: “Why does a dog need to be walked?” he asks on this curmudgeonly rant about the human need to have pets. ‘Hypermisophoniac’ is a very loose patchwork of sped up voices, random piano, repetitive whirring and tinkling guitar licks, and distorted bass solo, while: “When you’re robbing a bank” comes in and out of the mix at various stages.

More and more influenced by hip-hop, White attempts a decent rap on the experimental electro-jazz-funk of ‘Ice Station Zebra’, while the satirical corporate theme continues on ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’ where a mad melange of faux ‘Hal’ have-a-nice-day voice, segues into a short and thrashy workout with White hollering over the top in a witless fashion: “Do you want everything? Then you can have everything. Do you wish for nothing? Then you will have nothing“. Right.

While much of Boarding House Reach is admirable, ambitious, adventurous, and sometimes funny, plenty is not quite right here. White accentuates, exaggerates, elongates, and manipulates sounds, thoughts and textures throughout, in a hit-and-miss fashion. It’s interesting, but often awkward, indulgent and sometimes ludicrous, and whose novelty value rapidly diminishes after multiple plays. As he sings on ‘Connected To Love’: “Woman, don’t you know what I’m suffering from. Ease my pain, make it wash down with rain.” There is some kind of attention-seeking madness within Boarding House Reach, as White over-eggs the pudding a little too much. Still, it’s a largely admirable departure that just needs a little more focus and lyrical nuance.

Jeff Hemmings

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