Pillbox

Jack White - Boarding House Reach

Credit: Diane Lee/ Credit: Diane Lee/

Jack White is definitely not a normal person. His weirdness has been clear ever since his days as frontman for The White Stripes in the early 2000s, when he and his drummer ex-wife Meg White would dress in outlandish red, white, and black outfits and bill themselves as a brother-sister duo. But White’s latest record Boarding House Reach — his third solo effort since The White Stripes parted ways in the late 2000s — takes the strangeness to a whole new level, producing an over-the-top, self-indulgent project that, despite a few bright spots, is difficult to listen to.

While White’s work with The White Stripes had a raw garage rock sound and revolved mainly around scrappy guitar playing and unrefined drums, he has branched out in his solo career. His first two solo albums, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, introduced the heavy use of piano and violins and an overall more polished, produced sound. Despite being more cleanly recorded, White retained the bristling energy from his White Stripes days, as well as continuing to write wacky yet interesting lyrics. White also began to experiment more, such as with “High Ball Stepper,” a raucous instrumental track featuring a shrieking guitar solo.

In Boarding House Reach, White opts for a more electronic sound. While he has long been a believer in old-school recording techniques — Blunderbuss was recorded on analogue tape and he prefers to mix without using automation — his new project represents his first foray into Pro Tools, a digital sound recording and production system. The more modern, electronic sound is evident immediately, the first track, “Connected By Love,” beginning with an oscillating effect that sounds like a lightsaber being waved back and forth. While the song later adds piano and drums, the effect continues underneath throughout. The melody and vocal style are reminiscent of Blunderbuss, while a solo that combines guitar and keyboard echoes the sound of Lazaretto. While hints of his previous work remain, the final notes return to a higher-pitched wavering noise that reminds listeners of White’s new direction.

However, White’s first experience with Pro Tools is like a kid in a candy store. White throws in random sounds with reckless abandon and many of his songs are devoid of structure, just following whatever musical path popped into White’s mind next. For example, the funky “Corporation,” which actually opens with a solid riff, jumps so often between sounds that it feels all over the place. “Ice Station Zebra” starts with a muddy drum beat, then shifts to a hushed piano and a funky rhythm. It also features White attempting to rap (or do spoken word) — something we’ve seen before on “Rag and Bone” from The White Stripes’ Icky Thump — but while the Stripes song features a stomping beat, hard, energetic guitar melody set up by a playful riff, the music in “Ice Station Zebra” is discombobulated and overdone.

Other times, White just goes too far with the electronic sound effects. On “Hypermisophoniac,” the title of which is derived from a condition where negative emotions and reactions are set off by specific sounds, White attempts to create something beautiful out of irritating sounds, such as his son’s toys. However, the end result is a jarring jumble of clashing sounds.

Some tracks even deviate from being true “songs.” “Abulia and Akrasia” features a poem being read over pianos and violin, “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” is built around muted drums and White shouting angrily, and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” has White reciting a magical-sounding story over repetitive guitar picking. While perhaps intriguing for one listen, these tracks just make the album into an even more confounding and disjointed project.

There are a few bright spots, such as “Connected By Love.” Others include “Over and Over and Over,” which features a boisterous, bouncy guitar riff and smart but odd lyrics that would feel at home on Lazaretto. “Respect Commander,” although a bit messy, is bolstered by moody, raw blues guitar, and the country tune “What’s Done is Done” thrives due to its simplicity. The final track, “Humoresque,” is a calming close to the album, despite its unorthodox origins; White based it around lyrics written by 1920s gangster Al Capone while in prison and music from a 19th-century tune by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.

Overall, however, Boarding House Reach is too unfocused and bizarre to work as a cohesion and enjoyable piece of music. Perhaps, it is better viewed as a boundary breaking piece of art, not necessarily meant to be enjoyed but rather studied and analyzed. However, after the two excellent solo albums Blunderbuss and Lazaretto, Boarding House Reach feels like a let down, and a downright mess.