Last night we headed to London's County Hall, former headquarters of the Greater London Council, to hear Jack White's new album Blunderbuss for the first time.
Blue was the order of the day – from blue curaçao cocktails at the reception to blue lighting in the venerable debating chamber – in keeping with Blunderbuss' packshot. And blues tinged rock'n'roll was the order of the music.
The Mayor of Lambeth, in full mayoral regalia, interviewed/flirted with White after the album playback and took some questions from the assembled hacks. We learned that he still looks a bit like Michael Jackson, that he is a trained upholsterer and was once in a band called The Upholsterers.
But the playback began with White appearing on screen, moving a stylus over a vinyl copy of Blunderbuss and the record spinning.
Tim Lee offers some only-heard-it-once initial/not-finalised thoughts on the tracks that make up Blunderbuss…
So, it begins with a rather insistent Hammond organ. Not a guitar. Something that will (as things progress) become more telling. It's expectedly bluesy, slightly unexpectedly Motown and nicely casual. It ends, with a fairly atypical (although thrilling) Jack White guitar wig-out, a touch more organ, and then an abrupt stop. A good start.
A bluesy guitar howl gives way to an actual, sat-on-myself howl. For anyone who thinks that Screwdriver remains almost untouchably spectacular, whatever else Jack White goes near, that's a great thing. Sixteen Saltines (Or 'Salteens', if you believe some of the paraphernalia) is one of two of White's solo tracks that have already been floating about on Internet, so you'll probably already know of its sludgey Led Zeppelin-like ways. It thuds and it pounds and is probably the track from Blunderbuss that has the blood of The White Stripes as parentage most purely running through the veins.
Freedom At 21
Although this runs it close. More drums that pound like the closing of tombs. More wiry, swampy guitars. But here White's vocal is tossed lower. It's more solemn, more down-and-out. Quieter. But the song is actually a little bit funky. A little bit glam. You know T-Rex? You know Superfly? So does Freedom At 21. The riff thrusts and poises, and positions itself as a proper 21st Century Boy, and then erupts into another all out, up'n'down the fret Jack White workout. Oh, and as of yet, there's still very little sign of bass.
Ah, a quieter one. The second of the two tracks with some degree of familiarity, Love Interruption really reminds you of Son Of A Preacher Man. There's just something in that break prior to the verse that makes you think Billy Ray was a preacher's son, and when his daddy would visit he'd come along. Just on a oboe. But the best thing about Love Interruption is its two-facedness. The lyrics are spiteful and malicious, but delivered with an cheery smile and a jaunty wave. It's a prickly thorn, sweetly worn.
Blunderbuss has a child-like, wide-eyed simplicity which is instantly appealing. Particularly when half way through it gives way to a rich, string-laden continuation. But throughout it the simple piano runs remains, tinkling away in a delightfully straightforward fashion. When White does this it often turns out kind of lovely. Think I Can Tell We're Going To Be Friends, or I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart. He's always been an empathetic storyteller and always played the innocent with consummate skill, and it's no different here.
More piano. More piano. More piano. Hypocritical Kiss has enough piano to make you mistake it for the cinematic accompaniment for a 1920s film. No doubt, White gives it everything, treating the piano how he treats the guitar – athletically traversing its length, prone to impressive flourishes – but, upon first listen Hypocritical Kiss seems a little slight. However given afterwards the Mayor Of Lambeth declares it her favourite and White himself declares he's most proud of it makes us wonder if we've missed something.
Weep Themselves To Sleep
People plug in, Jack counts in and Weep Themselves To Sleep rolls in. A chopping riff and then, yet more piano. But, unlike the ol'Joanna we've seen so far, this piano is far more interested in ramping up the drama. It's more frantic, more impassioned and more on the edge of (in)sanity. It pounds and then pulls up to these almost comically dramatic pauses. The stilted dynamic can't help but hark back to the jarring, duh-duh-duh-duh, hit of Blue Orchid. Weep Themselves To Sleep is great, and a fine way to end side 1.
Brings to mind Shakin' All Over. Not just because of the words. There's something in the twangy guitar, something in the 1960s handclaps, something in the way Jack's voice sounds like he's recorded it down a transistor radio. But it's cool. It's hip. It mentions Bo Diddley.
Trash Talking Tongue
You know, if we say the word piano again, maybe you'll get the idea. Of course, White is a multi-faceted musician, but it's still a little surprising how little of Blunderbuss relies on the guitar. However, by this point the piano in question is now honky-tonking all over the shop. It's a bar-room boogie-woo, with drums that resonate with such portent thumps that you'd almost believe they were by Meg. Almost. Sniff.
Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy
Well, this is odd. It's a fairground ride. Spinning. Pirouetting around and around with jangly merriment. Or a music box. You know, one of those ones with a spinning ballerina. A clockwork melody clicking on and on and on and on. It has got some lovely lyrical moments on it, White's oft overlooked skill at writing a line which trips off the ear is displayed throughout, but it does feel a little bit lacking in presence.
I Guess I Should Go To Sleep
There's murmurs and hints of it throughout, but it isn't till I Guess I Should Go To Sleep that the country and western influence really comes to the fore. Given what White has been doing in his production duties and given that Blunderbuss was made in Nashville, it's almost more of a surprise it takes this long. I Guess I Should Go To Sleep is a little bit Dolly, playful and sad and doe-eyed. But it doesn't make the greatest first impression.
On and On and On
A dreamy, wistful introduction, a twanging double bass (you see, like buses, you wait for ages for bass and then a double comes along) and in Jack breezes in, in a pondering and pensive mood. It's almost a bit Byrdsian. Particularly in the multi-tracked chorus, which seems especially psychedelic next to the stark verses. It's an interesting thing. It's also the track from Blunderbuss which seems least easy to compare against any of Jack's 'other' bands. Which for a man with that many 'other' bands, is no mean feat.
Take Me With You When You Go
Least easy comparison, apart from this one. Take Me With You is, weirdly, more than a little jazzy. But only for a bit because then there's a fiddle, and then the whole thing becomes a lot more like a Irish square-dance.
Then, out of nowhere, a riff appears and the song takes off. Squealing, zapping through space. Then it becomes an armour-plated funk-soul brother, rampaging towards the horizon. Which is ace. It's a big old finish, in full-on all voices all instruments, smash it all up and go home encore.
That, rather smart, finish, is Blunderbuss. An album which is unmistakably Jack White, but still manages to offer more than a few surprises.
Jack White's Blunderbuss is out through XL on 23 April 2012.