Jack White, Blunderbuss — A few twitchy G-minor keyboard throat clearings, and then: "I was in the shower so I could not tell my nose was bleeding." A fantastic opening line: bad shit, bad day, didn't even realize how bad the random stress was. I loved the White Stripes even when they sucked, if only for the perverse license White was given to abuse radio playlists with blatantly uncommercial songs ("Icky Thump" on FM airwaves is practically an act of sabotage), and this is White's most liberated work since. Meg White's drumming provided an interesting conceptual stumbling block to write songs around, but the limitations of The Raconteurs/The Dead Weather don't seem to stimulate White as much. Giving himself total freedom to play without collaborators, White delivers an album that's (almost) as good as Elephant, complete with the trademark agitated yelping: I'm particularly fond of his exasperated yelp "WHO THE HELL'S IMPRESSED BY YOU" on "Hypocritical Kiss." But the whole thing is highlights: the chorus of multiple Whites shouting "Hey! Hey!" like Timbaland session backup dudes on "Freedom At 21," the rising piano octave-ascension on the furiously churning "Weep Themselves To Sleep," the blatantly Kinks-ian pianos on "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy." Above all, White's a clever dude who sees no opposition between his intelligence and desire to warp the pop song and his yen to write shitkicking rockers. Or not, whatever he feels like. Reviews/interviews have focused on the barely concealed lyrics directed at Meg and ex-wife Karen Elson, but whatever gets him going works for me: "misogyny" is a serious accusation, hardly one justified by these extremely specific songs.
Sleigh Bells, Reign Of Terror — One trick ponies, perhaps, but it's a hell of a trick. Treats had a Sound, but not many full-formed songs; Reign Of Terror is poppier, perhaps even syrupy, even if the opening vague-yelling/crowd-cheering sounds like Cheap Trick live at Budokan, a wish-fulfilling stadium-filling future the band isn't ready for. I mean nothing snotty when I say that the band Sleigh Bells most resembles is Snake River Conspiracy, a dimly remembered 1998 one-off also composed of one cooing girl + one semi-industrial-minded producer Svengali (if you don't remember them, consider this stunningly literal-minded cover of "How Soon Is Now?," with birds chirping as soon as avians are mentioned). The first two songs are fine but misleadingly intimidating: as soon as the cheerleader chants of "Crush" kick in ("I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU. I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU!"), we're in a whole other album. "Crush" is followed by "End Of The Line," a clangingly apocalyptic break-up song ("It didn't have to be this way, but this is the end of the line, so goodbye") with the sonic depth of vintage Dave Fridmann-produced Flaming Lips and the emotional gut-punch of Melancholia; it's enough to turn me into a sniveling bitch. Amazingly, the rest of the album doesn't constitute an anticlimax, packed with motivational speeches Young Jeezy would approve of ("You gotta try a little harder, you're the comeback kid" on, duh, "Comeback Kid"), pep talks to suicidal friends ("You Lost Me"), an affirmative package of bromides executed with vigor and actual emotional conviction.
Saint Etienne, Words And Music By Saint Etienne — "When I was 10, I wanted to explore the world. There were these older kids at school who'd gone all the way to Somerset just to see Peter Gabriel's house. Peter Gabriel from Genesis." I thought "End Of The Line" might be the song of the year, but then I heard "Over The Border," the best song about the process of music nerd-dom since "Losing My Edge." (It's just as quotably specific too: "I just wanted to listen to Dexy's, New Order, anything on Postcard.") "When I got got married and had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?" Sarah Cracknell wonders, narrating a youth of by-no-means misbegotten obsession ("I lived in my bedroom. All of us did.") Melancholia's been a Saint Etienne constant (that's what makes them one of my absolute favorites), and "Over The Border" is their saddest spoken-word landmark since 2005's "Teenage Winter." Not just a song for music nerds, but a reflection perhaps of the band's fears: can they keep up in the ever-changing pop landscape? Absolutely (albeit, wisely, with the help of Richard X and Xenomania producers). Every song's a ringer: like the pop depressives they are, more time to think and brood has merely sharpened Saint Etienne's craft. They're the rare band that get better with age.
Whitey, Lost Summer — Befitting an album self-released in a fit of anti-label petulance, Lost Summer begins with a horrible mess of unpleasant noise: "Also Sprach Zarathustra," a female orgasm, fartingly discordant horns. That out of the way, Whitey (full disclosure: this is my first run-in with him) delivers a stellar electro-pop album that could've come out in 2003, right alongside The Notwist. The opening curtain-rising, drum-pounding intro to second track "Brief And Bright" conjures up the curtain-raising of Children Of Paradise for me. "Good evening everyone," Whitey croons, urbanely despairing without true panic about his night-to-night routine (cf. standout song "Saturday Night Ate Our Lives"). No bummers, though my favorite track is the beatifically bummed "The Empty Man." Part of me wonders if the sonics and songcraft aren't a little reactionary, but that's my problem.