Jack White - Boarding House Reach

by Mark Moody Rating:7 Release Date:2018-03-23
Jack White - Boarding House Reach
Jack White - Boarding House Reach

Jack White swims further out into the deep end of the pool on Boarding House Reach, or so he would have you believe.  At its essence there is a brilliant funk album scattered intermittently across the course of thirteen tracks, like some long lost and particularly heavy Prince album.  The residual songs, for the most part, serve to detract from the core here and aside from some of the lyrical content just aren’t as bonkers as White would like you to think.  As ridiculous as it may sound, when White declares on the hip-hop flavored ‘Ice Station Zebra’ that James Brown told him you got to hit it and quit it - White unequivocally pulls off a sweaty, deviant funk/blues mini-album at a level you might not have expected.  

Aside from White’s on point squealing chords and twisted solos at the appropriate moments, he has surrounded himself with some expert level musicians and vocalists.  Half of Nashville based gospel blues singers The McCrary Sisters (notably Ann and Regina) serve as the icing on the cake on the tracks where they appear.  Whether coming off as soulful, spiritual, blues shouters, or having had their vocals mutated and mangled the sisters can be credited for pushing White’s songs to something transcendent.  Not to dismiss anyone else’s contributions but the lineup of drummers, bassists, synth and keyboard players that White assembled from the world of hip-hop, funk, and latin music is just too lengthy to detail, but all contribute mightily to the strongest songs here.

The opening ‘Connected by Love’ makes for a perfect intro to the arsenal of musicians that White assembled.  Aside from White’s own blues-based solo, the synth chords, organ riffs, and full throated backing by the McCrary’s put this song over the top.  ‘Connected’ serves as lead exhibit to the brilliance of White can achieve when he puts his mind to it and doesn’t stray too far afield.  While ‘Connected’ kicks things off, ‘Over and Over and Over’ although brief serves as anchor to the best White has to offer.  The repetitive funk riff and the McCrary’s dramatics ultimately give way to a short but blistering solo and more vocal histrionics.  White scoffs at his ever expectant audience - “my fibula and femur, hold the weight of the world” as if delivering what his fans want is bearly tolerable.  ‘Over’ is followed shortly thereafter by the stinging funk meltdown of ‘Respect Commander’.  The song is punctuated by a ‘Crosstown Traffic’ power chord and stadium rock/rap synth drop out beat which fades into an anything but laughable story of sexual submissiveness.  If there is any hint of irony it is overcome by a scorching solo that rivals Prince’s best, battling it out with a percussive backbeat.  

The other funk based songs are more of a mixed bag, but ultimately work themselves out when pieced with the stronger tracks to put together what could have been a cohesive whole.  The strongest of these include the more experimental keyboard/synth workout of ‘Hypermisophoniac’.  The song’s earwig upwards synth whir provides a wonky anchor for some off kilter piano work and tweaked vocals.  And if you can contend with the lyrical content,  even ‘Corporation’ and the somewhat awkward hip-hop of ‘Ice Station Zebra’ are positive additions.  It’s hard to take White’s swipes at corporate America seriously when he is a corporation unto himself, and White as emcee on the latter track is tough to swallow.  If it weren’t for the strength of the musical backbone his effort to rap about not wanting to be labelled (someone really doesn’t want to be tagged as painting like Caravaggio?) would come off only as awkward.  White even pulls off a falsetto towards the end of the track worthy of His Royal Purpleness.  

On the downside, when White falls flat on Boarding House Reach they aren’t just stumbles but full fledged face plants.  Also unfortunately there are far too many of them.  The super serious drone of ‘Why Walk a Dog?’ may appeal to the most hardcore of animal rights activists, but trying to make pet ownership come off as the equivalent of human trafficking is a stretch.  Lines like “Are you their master, did you buy them at the store?” are about as melodramatic as they come.  The spoken word piece of ‘Abulia and Akrasia’ is a particular low point.  Recited by C.W. Stoneking, whoever the Hell that is, sounds like Woody Harrelson at his Glass Castle drunken worst and recalls Harrelson’s own disastrous dialogue on The Killers' awful album of last year.  The anti-consumerism preachiness of ‘Everything You’ve Ever Learned’ is overshadowed by the disaster that is ‘What’s Done is Done’.  If it’s appropriate to hold musicians to any moral standards, the implied murder/suicide honky tonk duet with Esther Rose is way over the line.  The tossed off nature of the song only makes the conclusion of the tale of “I’m walking downtown to the store and I’m buying a gun” that much more offensive.  In the era of rampant gun and domestic violence it either speaks to abject ignorance or lack of any tact whatsoever.  Either is inexcusable thirty years on from the inanity of a song like Guns ’n’ Roses’ ‘Used to Love Her’ that wouldn’t pass muster today.

Fortunately, we are not left with that penultimate track as the album closes on a decidedly high note.  Though it doesn’t seem it would work on paper, the Dvorak melody of ‘Humoresque’ set to lyrics written by, of all people, Al Capone comes up an unexpected winner.  It’s the only track here that successfully steps out of the hard funk mold and doesn’t falter.  Lines about sunbeams playing, flowers swaying, children dancing, and lovers romancing come off without irony and the song has the feel of a lost Irving Berlin or Cole Porter standard.  Coming almost two decades after White Blood Cells’ ‘We’re Going to be Friends’ and the nostalgia of a teacher marking heights on a wall, White shows he is not without a humanist streak somewhere under the artifice.  

There is way too much out of sync here to come anywhere close to a classic.  White’s “out of touch” eccentricities seem too real, unlike the ironic buffoonery of someone like a Father John Misty, to hope for a full fledged masterpiece down the road.   But if you sort out the funk from the funky there’s too much that is good here not to recommend giving Boarding House Reach a spin. 

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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