Dead Weather’s Dodge and Burn: A Review

The Dead Weather’s new album, Dodge and Burn, takes its name from the darkroom practice of under or overexposing a portion of a print to produce a lighter or darker effect. The rock supergroup — composed of Jack White (the White Stripes, the Raconteurs), Alison Mosshart (The Kills), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age), and Jack Lawrence (The Greenhornes, The Raconteurs, City and Colour, Blanche) — have been recording the album over the past two years, a nearly glacial pace when compared to their first album, Horehound, written and recorded in a single three-week whirlwind.

The hype leading up to the release had me feeling very nostalgic: my first record, as it turns out, was their 2009 debut Horehound. At that point a freshman in high school (and an angsty white male/natural devotee of all things Jack White), I’d been saving money from cutting grass to preorder the first run vinyl print because I heard that White had randomly distributed photo booth strips that guaranteed the recipient a trip to Nashville for a tour of Third Man Records in a few lucky sleeves. The promotion for their newest album offers a different kind of closeness to the band through a series of tutorial and performance videos.

The album itself is a healthy mix of old and new. Dodge and Burn clicks and buzzes through 12 tracks in 43 minutes. It’s a tight listen and almost every song has a sense of urgency and necessity. While the general structure (dark, riff-based rock music with one foot deep in the blues) is likely familiar to followers of the band, on Dodge and Burn, The Dead Weather move beyond the sleazy grime of Horehound or the cultic smoke and mirrors of Sea of Cowards into innovative sonic territory — a dedicated commitment to shaking noise into music. Listeners can hear prime examples of this “noise” on tracks like “Three Dollar Hat,” which feature a full minute of barely controlled electronic chaos or “Cop and Go,” where repetitively clinking 8th-note piano figures become noise by forcing the listener to ignore them as guitarist/keyboardist Dean Fertita buries them in the mix. Another prime example is the  track “Rough Detective,” which features singers Jack White and Alison Mosshart delivering a dozen strangled seconds of clicking vocal noise suggesting either mechanical failure or erotic entwine (a technique deployed to similar effect on their previous records).

The word noise is rooted in the Latin nausea, from the Greek naus for ship. The disorientation, displacement, and disgust of the etymology all come to bear in Dodge and Burn. Critics have described The Dead Weather’s signature fuzz using some profoundly mechanical/technological metaphors. The distortion sounds like a buzzsaw, like a power drill, an electric toothbrush, like a machine gun. These terms, noisy as they are, are incredibly consonant with David Novak’s definitions of “Noise” in his chapter on that term in his collection of essays Keywords in Sound: a conceptual lexicon for sound studies, where noise is “a keynote sound of industrial development and mechanization” — by rendering noise-as-music (in an explicitly technological fashion, as we’ll see), The Dead Weather render intelligible, familiar, musical that which is fundamentally unintelligible, alien, and noisy.

In a word, this has been the project of rock music from day one. As a traditionally black musical form, rock music “once rendered as noise […] could circulate as authentic cultural material, while continuing to signify its fundamental incommensurability with European civilization.” From those origins, “noise” has been a constant characterization of rock music — leveled against me by my father for listening to Mastodon’s The Hunter in the kitchen, by his father against him for listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in the house at all, and so on probably since the my family got to the United States in the first place. Moreover, the exploitation of technology goes all the way back to the start of the genre as well. From early blues and swing guitarists who, as much as anything, needed more volume to electronic luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, whose careful manipulation of electric guitar feedback was a critical element to his mimesis of the Vietnam battlefield soundscape, the control and operation of modern technology has been foundational to the development of rock music.

The centrality of technological noise production to the project of rock music is absolutely on the face of Dodge and Burn. This becomes incredibly clear when the video campaign marketing the album is taken into consideration. In addition to a performance video of The Dead Weather playing “Be Still,” two videos featuring musical tutorials (for bass guitar and drums) were produced — each begins with short discussion of the role of the instrument in the overall sound of the group followed by a breakdown of how that sound is achieved and a live performance of a song that demonstrates the technique in question. In both videos the musicians spend the bulk of their time talking about the technology of their instruments. Lawrence discusses the role of the Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer in generating the pixelated scuzz that typifies The Dead Weather’s low-end, while White goes into detail describing his custom drum set and the aural/visual aesthetic concerns involved in its design.

Additionally, these videos introduce another kind of noise (visual) through another kind of technology (the dodging and burning where the album got its name). In each tutorial video, the instruments themselves are overexposed (burned) giving each drum, microphone, and tuning peg a dark outline. The Dead Weather’s black and white costume stands out in even starker contrast when manipulated this way —  the instruments are marked by (visual) noise as the technical means of (aural) noise production. Dodge and Burn articulates very thoroughly the project of rock music in modernity — by dragging “noise,” kicking and screaming and with some physical effort (just watch the performance videos!) into the domain of “music,” rock musicians, The Dead Weather specifically, produce a sonic representation of technological modernity (antisocial, mechanical, noisy) that is intelligible to social, organic, musical humanity.

In fairness, none of that says very much about the quality of the record as such. While a lot of the tracks on Dodge and Burn sound very similar to The Dead Weather’s previous work, I can’t pretend that this isn’t another excellent outing from an exceptionally talented group of musicians. Like all of their output, Dodge and Burn stands up to repeat listenings and has an evident craft (if not polish) that their earlier albums couldn’t quite muster given their short writing/recording time. I would echo a few other critics who note that this record feels more like The Dead Weather proper rather than another interchangeable “Jack White project” — which is certainly positive (as much as I love interchangable Jack White projects). The thing that really sells this album for me is the frankly incredible final track “Impossible Winner.” After all the madness of the first 11 tracks, the listener is hit in the face with an enormous ballad — suitable for any pop diva — which manages to be both a fantastic song on its own right as well as the perfect, perhaps ironic, wink that fills you in.

They know exactly what they’re doing — and it’s outstanding.

Featured image courtesy of www.Americansongwriter.com.


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