By ARMAND BUTERA
Since its March 23 release, Jack White’s third solo album “Boarding House Reach” has been routinely slogged by critics and fans alike. His newest studio offering has come under some intense scrutiny, but to paraphrase a line from one of the songs off of this record, White’s latest offering still commands respect from the listener. It is easily one of his oddest, most ambitious records in years.
White himself has called “Boarding House Reach” “bizarre,” but bizarre is an appropriate description for the bulk of his work, solo or otherwise. Fans of his are sure to remember the inquisitive trash collectors of song “Rag and Bone,” a track off of The White Stripes’ 2007 album “Icky Thump.”
“Black Bat Licorice,” an odd tune from White’s previous album, wouldn’t feel out of place on the new record. Despite his appreciation of blues, roots and rock music, there’s nothing explicitly straightforward about the music on the first two solo efforts.
To be fair, there isn’t much on the new album that can be compared to his past work, at least not with the first listen. White’s whole approach to recording seems to have changed dramatically on “Boarding House Reach,” relying on synthesizers, electronic drums, sampling and vocal manipulation to move things forward.
White is prone to making things as challenging as possible for himself, whether he’s performing live or in the studio. Not using a setlist, purposely using archaic recording techniques and playing guitars that would seem to require a third hand just to rattle off a few notes, this all comes natural to him. With the new record, he has purposely abandoned what has, ironically, been so comforting to him, and the results are interesting.
Interesting, but not always successful.
There are a few spoken word tracks that, while musically intriguing, don’t have much to say. “Abulia and Askrasia” and “Esmeralda Steals the Show” sound like middle school poetry.
“Why Walk a Dog?” is set to an interesting synth march, but White questioning why we own pets isn’t particularly moving or thought provoking. These tracks only prove that Tom Waits corners the market on lovable spoken word songs, but that’s to be expected.
There are things that only White can provide, though, and his talents are still quite noticeable on “Boarding House Reach.”
White’s guitar is a bit more reserved on some tracks, but it still packs a punch, and the session musicians he works alongside, many of which have their roots in hip hop, work wonderfully alongside him. While he has adopted a few new sounds, they are woven in between blues, rock and gospel music throughout the record.
“Respect Commander” is a great blend of all the musical themes on the record, and “Ice Station Zebra” consists of White pseudo-rapping over synth and piano breaks. It could have resulted in an embarrassing blemish on the album, but White delivers the song in a way that harkens back to the classic hip- hop artists of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Meanwhile, “Corporation” is itching for a live treatment – something fans can be expecting on his new tour.
“Boarding House Reach” isn’t without some essential Jack White tracks. If the artist ever gets the “Greatest Hits” treatment in the future, “Connected By Love” and “Over and Over and Over” are destined to be on that compilation. The music to “Connected By Love” sways in between White’s cracked and desperate vocals, and “Over and Over and Over” is a shot of adrenaline courtesy, of one of modern rock’s most active members.
“Boarding House Reach” isn’t disappointing as much as it’s alarming. White takes a dive into synth driven songs and hip hop influenced grooves, but winds up wading
back to familiar shores. While not as drastic a stylistic change as other albums (Neil Young’s “Trans” comes to mind), the new record will still have some raising their eyebrows. But “Boarding House Reach” has the bones of a great Jack White album and shows an artist willing to step out of their comfort zone not to reach a new audience, but to develop artistically. It’s debatable how “Boarding House Reach” will age. But in the meantime, White marches on in search of a new conquest.