Jack White is an indie darling. He was one of the earliest major players in the recent vinyl revival through his own record company, Third Man Records, he fronted one of the most beloved and influential garage rock groups of the 20th century in The White Stripes, and has recently released his third solo studio album, this being the 14th LP in his colorful discography.
At the age of 42, White has become a certified rock legend through fantastic talent, a tireless work ethic, and, above all, a keen ability to keep an eye on the future while holding tremendous respect for the past.
His first solo project, Blunderbuss, is perhaps the best possible example of this. The production is ahead of its time, the stereo imagery is imaginative, and yet each track bleeds with a love of early 20th century blues, early 90’s grunge-rock, and lyrics that glorify early jazz culture. In short, Blunderbuss is the perfect example of a record that looks forward and backwards all at once. Boarding House Reach, however, is not.
Perhaps the most apparent issue with this project, and what will jump out to any casual listener in the first few minutes is the lack of any substantial “groove” if you will. Each song sounds like a long intro, constantly throwing new ideas without ever settling into any of them. The opener, for example, features strange synth leads and an erratic vocal performance from White on the verses which distract from a really exciting and singable chorus and a mostly enjoyable organ lead, and that’s the real tragedy of this record.
Boarding House Reach, is not without its bright spots. Far from it, this record features a few of the catchiest hooks in White’s career, just hear the aforementioned opening track, or the lead riff of “Corporation,” and the Hammond organ work throughout is captivating, but these shining lights are diamonds buried in not only the rough of this album, but almost always the rough of the tracks they are a part of.
The only purely enjoyable song throughout the whole tracklist is probable the short, quiet, and simple “Ezmerelda Steals the Show.” At just under two minutes, its the shortest and simplest track, allowing the goofy spoken word piece to shine, charmingly without being dragged down by decisions which range from bewildering, to aggravating, to seemingly, intentionally ridiculous.
The production, as expected, is vibrant. White and his team handle the array of unique instrumentation and constant transfer of the lead melody with such skill and intelligence that one wishes they’d had a more focused project to bring to life. A few instruments (I’m looking at you, Tamborine on track 3) are painfully tinny, but the overall sound is impressive from a technical standpoint.
Finally, I must commend White on his vision, which is perhaps best summed up in the second to last track, “What’s Done Is Done.” In it, Jack White and Esther Rose strike an inviting, albeit simple harmony which plays well against the methodical Hammond organ work, and mostly endures a few irritating synthesizers. The sound that White creates here is oh so reminiscent of Blunderbuss. It’s a modernization of the kinds of church hymns which rose to prominence during the 1970’s Baptist revivals, mixing in cynical lyricism of early garage rock and an interesting drop-out bridge which is lifted straight from the more “new-age” techniques of 21st century pop. This updating of a classic, niche genre which just so happens to be quite near and dear to my heart got me thinking about a film I saw as a kid. A modern American classic known as “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”
In it (spoiler alert) Hannah’s secret identity is revealed to nearly every citizen of the very small town in which she is performing, a mistake which should cost her her career. But, instead, the kind townspeople agree to let her put her wig back on keep performing, promising to forget it ever happened and tell no-one of what they just saw, and presumably did not take any pictures of. So allow me, on the part of all Jack White fans, offer Mr. White a similar opportunity.
The concept on this project is fantastic and could make for the most interesting and exciting project in the entire Jack White discography, if executed better. So take the record back, focus it up a bit, remove a lot of the synth elements which plague each song, and make your use of 70’s gospel music a bit more prominent, and I’ll pay twice as much to hear that record! Hell, I’ll buy it on vinyl in a heartbeat! Call it Boarding House Reach 2.0 and, in exchange, we’ll all forget that Boarding House Reach ever happened.
HEAR THE ALBUM – https://open.spotify.com/album/6btUx9G2BPajQ7P6mpTxId