They are the goth girls you pined away for in high school, but were too scared to approach for fear of something much worse than Wiccan magic — rejection. Or the ones Jack White did at least. White’s latest project at his Third Man Records finds the erstwhile indie-rock guitar god throwing a surprisingly convincing and catchy gouls’ night out with his girl-band proteges, the Black Belles. The witches brew (complete with wide-brimmed hats and long-but-not-too-long black dresses) consists of singer/guitarist/songwriter Olivia Jean, bassist Ruby Rogers, drummer Shelby Lynne, and Lil’ Boo womaning the synth.
Not to give the Belles short shrift (they play with skilled abandon), but the record sounds like White. And the producer follows a formula that’s held him in good stead since the White Stripes’ self-titled debut. Straight-ahead crunching blues-based guitar hooks that sound as if they were ripped from Zeppelin II, staccato bursts of noise, oceans of feedback, driving back beats and howled vocals. That the vocals in this case are yowled, yelped, whispered and yelled by Olivia Jean–a cross between the pale and lanky White and the even paler Elvira–only serves to sweeten the pot, especially when some of those yowls (perhaps somewhat predictably) consist of repeating the words “I’ve been a bad girl.”
If White has a Phil Spector fantasy, his ideal front woman is not Ronnie Spector but Wednesday Adams. And in the person of Olivia Jean, her gets her. It’s enough to make the Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart jealous. It’s a simple enough equation. Just as the Ronnettes, Crystals and Shangri-Las all sounded more or less like what their architect Spector wanted, so too do the Dead Weather, Raconteurs and Belles all bear White’s mark, sort of the way all Woody Allen movies are alike whether or not the director is in them. And not to beat a certain frizzy-haired-genius of a dead horse to death, but the lyrics too could have been cribbed from a ’60s girl-group 45, albeit one a young Tim Burton would have kept hidden from his parents. “And you ain’t my baby/ I’m not listening to your whining no more/ Take those screams to your mother’s door,” Jean sings on the title track “Leave You With a Letter,” before concluding the break-up anthem with the gloomy “It won’t disturb me/ if you die all alone.”
And into the mix throw some girl-group chants (drenched in ghostly echoes, as on the aforementioned lead track “Leave You With a Letter”), spooky organ, theremin and other retro B-movie embellishments, washes of surf guitar, a black-and-white palette, and there you have the Black Stripes, er, Belles. In the end, a really fun costume party where you might want to drink some absinthe and dance around awkwardly.