Album Review: Jack White’s ‘Boarding House Reach’

No one is likely to accuse “Boarding House Reach” of being Jack White’s best album, but it’s subject to arraignment on charges of being his giddiest, most experimental and most garrulously fun. He’s set aside nearly all of the acoustic Americana touches that flitted through his previous album, 2014’s “Lazaretto,” opting for an anything-goes grab bag of funk, prog rock, poetry, trip-hop, goofy sermonizing and — not to abandon all registered trademarks — vocal shrieking and guitar shredding. Not everyone will go along for the ride, but it’s a kick to hear White jettison some of the remaining vestiges of his roots-rock formalism to get loose and play fun-house king.

Only one track here really recalls the White Stripes, and it’s easy to understand why White released “Over and Over and Over Again” as a teaser track to ease fans into the less familiar mash-up to come. He’s said the song was written back in his Stripes days, and you can feel it in its comfort-food riffing. All that sets it apart from Jack-and-Meg land is some weirdly modulated background-vocal interlocutions that sound grafted on from a Frank Zappa record. The Mothers of Invention provide a loose reference point for other parts of the album too, along with 1970s mind expanders ranging from Captain Beefheart to Todd Rundgren’s Utopia to Parliament — artifacts from a land that time forgot, when anything could happen on a rock record, as it does pretty much from minute to minute here.

It’s not as if “Boarding House Reach” lacks what it takes to please meat-and-potatoes classic rock fans. White’s short solo on “Respect Commander” nods ever so slightly to “Purple Haze.” There’s a recurring two-note riff on “Ice Station Zebra” that can’t help recalling Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Welcome Back My Friends.” You get the most extended conga action this side of vintage “Devadip” Santana, Moog blasts, jazzy piano fills and (apparently) simulated clavinets. There are B3s too, analog enough that you can practically feel the steel breath of the organ’s spinning tone wheels when White sets his Hammond players gleefully adrift in the fields of Jon Lord.

So, what of all the present-day touches White promised for the album? The hip-hop influences, the performers borrowed from Beyoncé and the sops to — could he actually stoop this contemporary — ProTools? These are all parts of “Boarding House,” which has its throbbing synths and mechanical rhythms, but White’s modernizing touches seem to stop somewhere in the mid- or late-’90s, which may be one reason why the album it most brings to mind is Beck’s “Odelay.” That’s mostly for the whole project’s endearingly daffy spirit but also for the Dust Brother-ly execution of drum patterns where the line between live and programmed cadences is sometimes blurred. There’s enough crazy banging on the kit, anyway, that no one is going to mistake the work of White, the foremost proponent and seller of vinyl LPs, for an El-P production.

The biggest problem some fans will have, and we might as well get to it: Where are the songs, man? They’re here, if in shorter supply than the 13-track length might indicate, and sometimes on the bifurcated side. Three are essentially poems set to music, including “Abulia and Akrasia,” where guest reciter C.W. Stoneking adopts the diction of a drunken Woody Harrelson, and “Ezmerelda Steals the Show,” in which White tries out spoken-word harmonies, speaking in upper and lower registers. (“Their faces to the gadgets fall south,” he says at one point, an indicator of why he wants to lock your phone in a bag on his upcoming tour.) It’s unlikely many will listen to either of those more than twice. Then there are the tracks where the jams dominate the words, like “Corporation,” which sounds like a bootleg of one of Prince’s old bands covering the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.”

It’s true that it’s the more conventionally formed songs here — “Over and Over and Over Again”; the soul-man plea “Connected by Love”; the hillbilly suicide ballad “What’s Done Is Done” (the sole cut that sounds left over from “Lazaretto”) — that tend to be the most gratifying. But the album wouldn’t be the gas it is without the interstitial absurdities. Occasionally it all comes together, as on the standout “Ice Station Zebra,” which has White rapping (sort of) about how we all need to stop denying influences, because “we’re all copying God — add your own piece, but the puzzle is God’s.” On “Boarding House Reach,” he goes well out of his way to re-scatter the puzzle, but it’s a divine enough mess.

Album Review: Jack White's 'Boarding House Reach'

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