A proper, rock-and-roll-esque swagger of defiance is born out of indifference towards some of those that one might find to be an audience to them. What’s produced here with Sea of Cowards is very much a product of that, much like it’s preceding album Horehound. However, despite the bulbous display of self-confidence, there is and element of division between the two works. Whereas Horehound was born out of the behind the scenes dealings between Jack White and Allison Mosshart as they toured together, Sea of Cowards is born from an extended serving of time and patience, leaving the sense of division to wriggle it’s way through the album’s song composition, interplay of vocals, and lyrics.
One needs a full on arsenal of metaphors, similes, and even analogies in order to properly probe all the depths and crevices that make up this album’s musical landscape. There certainly are some more immediately noticeable characteristics that listeners may pick up off the get-go. While with Horehound, Jack White was adamant about pushing the majority of the vocal duties to The Kills’ Allison Mosshart, White has this time around pushed for a more shared and balanced dividing of this role. One can only assume this was done in order to support the back-and-forth dynamic that made tracks like the incestuously titled “Treat Me Like Your Mother” so popular in the band’s first go-around. Properly get a sense of what that dynamic was like (hell, even what that amazing video was like), and one gets a great perspective of where Sea of Cowards strength emanates from.
As mentioned before, the vocal duties are pretty evenly divided in this endeavor. What’s more curious is that the yelps, screams, whimpers, moans and what-have-you of both vocalists are not all that easy to differentiate. There’s also a surprising lack of choruses in the lyrics of these songs. What listeners are instead treated to is not a chorus or some more traditional hook, but a dense and carefully constructed landscape with guitars that cut and scrape, organs that churn out electronic belches, and drums that sound as if they’re being fired from the muzzle of a gun. Part of what makes Sea of Cowards a great piece of work to listen to is also where it trips up. Not everyone takes to a consciously constructed sense of abrasiveness to well.
“I Can’t Hear You” sounds like a slow steady cut of an argument; as if two ferocious animals circling each other midway through an extended battle. In fact, it almost sounds reminiscent of being a portion of that argument featured in the video for “Last Day of Magic”, a single from the latest album of Mosshart’s home-band The Kills. Hell, much of Sea of Cowards is reminiscent of the spirit embodied in that Kills video.
“Die by the Drop” cuts eerily deep; and acts as a fine ambassador to the album as a whole. In all of this LP the listener is subjected to a bleating back-and-forth of both calm and rage that dances about as both vocalists let their seething and frazzled urges erupt from their mouths. Plenty of interesting things have no doubt come from both White and Mosshart’s mouths, curious lyrics are no doubt among them. In this track the latter sings “I’ve got myself a problem / that I’ve been looking to sell”…before agreeing with White later in the song that “…sometimes you die a little / sometimes you die by the drop”.
A curious extra quality to this album that many would probably be quick to overlook is the subtle religious texture to everything. It’s hard to ignore the priestly quality to the garbs worn in the video for “Die by the Drop”, perhaps worn as if to evoke the image of a clergy left to fend for themselves in a dark and moist alley somewhere in the forgotten neighborhoods of a long dead city. Not such a crazy idea when one considers that the album’s closing track, “Old Mary” comes off as some sort of greasy and defiled prayer.
Almost as much fun is “Blue Blood Blues” in which White’s personal id seems to take the wheel as he sings “shake your hips like battleships / all the white girls trip when I sing at Sunday service”. There are points on this record where one has to be a wee bit disturbed at the places White and Mosshart travel to with their alter-egos in tow, their alternate personalities that are played with in the Dead Weather’s realm.
One thing to appreciate about both these vocalists (because, really, it plays more like their project, rather than the bands’ as a whole) is that they subscribe to an old-school class of rock and roll rules. They used the lessons gleaned from these classes to just beat out an album of anger and rage from that smoky blues-infused room of rock and roll that rests deeply somewhere in their curious psyches. The key to any good piece of drama is conflict, as most people will say. Both Mosshart and White bark and yelp at each other as some sort of display of conditioned response, responding to one’s anger with the other’s. This is the dynamic that feeds the entire album to make for a meaty experience.
Where’s the fault in this album? Who knows…as discussed before, Sea of Cowards stomps the ground with bold indifference, as if it was made purely for itself, thinking that whomever would find themselves liking it, would be enough. It’s fault may simply be that it’s so inwardly focused in it’s own identity, that the issue of accessibility to new fans may be somewhat of a problem. Of course, paradoxically, that’s also at the heart of what makes Sea of Cowards so easy to appreciate for those that want to do so. There’s thunder here, roaring claps of thunder that come with a tinge of smoke in the air.
© Gabriel Nylund, Music Vice
Our dear Mr. Nylund has done a top job of giving a thorough assessment of this record with all that self-described probing, but I can’t resist chipping in with my two pennies on this one. To me this album has such a simple and immediate appeal and Sea of Cowards reaches out and touches my primal senses in ways that few records do. This is an authentic rock n’ roll album which is positively throbbing and overflowing with a rare abundance of sleaze and sordidness. Swaggering is an ideal one-word summary for this album because every time I listen to this a bounce is injected into my step: Sea of Cowards can effectively transform a pasty white boy into John Shaft.
Jack White is well and truly back and with this, the sophomore release by his latest band The Dead Weather, he has found a shared level of vocal freakery with Alison Mosshart which is startling, and rich with a chemistry that seems to flow through the entire band. This music has soul.
It’s an absolutely banging album…. and I mean that in every way possible: It’s not just a fantastic record, but it’s so hot with it’s sexy cool blues thump that it serves as the ideal soundtrack for a summer of lurvin’. (Seriously, this album is deserving of a special edition vinyl boxset release complete with a lava lamp and a box of Durex.) Through all the rock n’ roll sleaze and sexiness Jack White emerges as a man liberated and creating some of the most essential music of his career, and to my ears this is the best and most vital album he has done since the White Stripes 2001 release White Blood Cells.
© Brian Banks, Editor, Music Vice