Knowing that Jack White is going to do the unexpected is like knowing the Detroit Lions are going to be terrible every year; it’s really a matter of how surprised or disappointed you are. White followed up the White Stripes’ second commercial juggernaut, Elephant, with an album light on guitars and heavy on down-tempo barhouse piano numbers (Get Behind Me Satan). Then he followed up a mishmash, but charming, album with the Raconteurs (Broken Boy Soldiers) with a shockingly milquetoast record that sounded like the second coming of AM rock (Consolers of the Lonely).
So it’s not really unexpected that he would launch the Dead Weather, yet another side project, instead of subverting expectations with another White Stripes or Raconteurs album. But what is unexpected how bone crushing Dead Weather’s debut album, Horehound, is. It’s a swaggering, clench-fisted, Zeppelin-esque monster of a type White has avoided since White Blood Cells. But then again, the guy has spent the better part of four years trying to get away from the notion that he’s some kind of guitar god, and now with Dead Weather’s guitar flare ups, he’s stuck behind the drum kit. But even if White is just playing drums this time out, this is the best album he’s been involved with since the White Stripes’ Elephant.
Joining White in Dead Weather’s Justice League is Alison Mosshart of the Kills, the Greenhornes and Raconteurs’ bassist, Jack Lawrence, and Queens of the Stone Age/Raconteurs touring guitarist, Dean Fertita. Unlike both Raconteurs records, Horehound sounds like an honest to goodness group effort, since White has pushed his bandmates forward, allowing Mosshart to handle (most of) the vocals and Fertita to work the six string.
While her work in the Kills requires Mosshart to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of bringing the band’s busted-ass grooves to life, never before has she risen to the front woman challenge like she does on Horehound. She jumps between being a riot grrl (the delightfully unhinged “Bone House”), a shrieking banshee out to right some wrongs (“Hang You from the Heavens” and “Treat Me Like Your Mother”), and to cheery blues songstress (“So Far From Your Weapon” and the White duet “Will There Be Enough Water”), showcasing a vocal attack variety she nary shows during her spastic performances with the Kills.
Mosshart and White are the main reasons Horehound is one of 2009’s biggest releases, but the album’s biggest star is journeyman guitarist Fertita, who dominates the album’s 11 tracks. Mosshart’s wail gives these songs a seedy, unhinged character, and White’s drumming is Bonham-like in its bombing volume, but it’s Fertita giving these songs their power. He can open up the fuzz and wail (“Hang You from the Heavens”), add muscle to an old Bob Dylan track (“New Pony”), and melt his fretboard with dog whistle solos (“Bone House”). Fertita might be the least known entity in Dead Weather, but he’s the one who most affects Horehound.
Horehound was allegedly recorded over the course of a few jam sessions following a Raconteurs/Kills tour, but what the quick recording time belies is how assured Horehound is. It’s got a musical cohesion (the dark side of the blues spectrum) that neither Raconteurs album has, and a sense or purpose and thrust that aren’t often apparent with similar bands more notable for their personnel than their music. Horehound doesn’t sound like the first album from a tossed-off side project; it crackles with the intensity of a band that has been together longer than a few months.