Much is made of the dynamic pairing between Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs) and Alison Mosshart (The Kills), the duo at the front of rock supergroup The Dead Weather, who at times seem like kindred spirits separated at birth. But not enough is said about how the twosome, along with keyboardist Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and bassist Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Greenhornes), casually marries muddy blues with hard-rocking riffs, eclectic rhythms, and howling punk energy. Lost in all the star power is just how effortlessly experimental this music can be. When Mosshart’s wobbling yowl, accompanied by a crushing riff rumbling downhill, interrupts White’s ramblings and a slow-burning groove on “Three Dollar Hat”, it’s merely a glimpse into everything that’s happening here.
Dodge and Burn, the first Dead Weather album in half a decade, is about as far from a vanity project as one can get. There’s no resting on laurels. The group’s approach is balls-to-the-wall, a chance to try anything and everything under an umbrella of creative autonomy. Filled with carefully assembled moving parts, they take decidedly high-yield risks that peel back sounds to reveal stunning alternatives. The gritty, scraping bite of the steel wool riffs on “Let Me Through” split in two to reveal divergent agendas with a complementary purpose. The bass bloats and the lead guitar peeks from behind Mosshart’s chants on “Mile Markers”, with syllables pointed at the ends, puncturing slivers of dead space between percussion reminiscent of a rap breakbeat. Where Sea of Cowards, Dead Weather’s sophomore album, mostly sloshed through a muck of heavy, growling blues and crunchy bass, Dodge and Burn is more interested in wading through a smorgasbord of sound, anchoring itself to the sturdy sadness of blues but exploring much more sonic space.
On “Cop and Go”, Lawrence’s bass gallops over prancing keys, while explosive outbursts shoot the gaps. Amp-busting riffs melt into a pool of smoldering chords under the weight of Mosshart’s shouts on lead single “Open Up”, which she lines with seemingly nonsensical queries like “Have you noticed the rivers and the clocks, they’re all screaming?” As with most Dead Weather releases, Mosshart is the central voice — she is the only member of the band credited as a writer on every song — but White’s oddball sensibilities play in the fringes.
It’s fitting, given White’s reputation as a Rock ‘n’ Roll Mad Hatter of sorts, that the lyrics often run through tumbling non sequiturs. There’s no rhyme or reason to some of these coiling phrases (“I see your roses grew noses go and get broken”). The writing is mostly distant and abstract. This is especially prevalent on opener “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)”. “Nothing to color/ Grey as a pill/ Nobody cry,” goes one mystifying line. “What does the blacktop/ Know that I have not cracked/ With my mind.” Even when the lines make sense on their own, the unfurling wordplay often avoids any semblance of linear storytelling, which speaks to a detachment induced by a complete sensory overload. Beneath the fog of grimy guitars, there are nuggets of truth embedded in irregular yarns.
(Watch: I Just Don’t Like Jack White)
What makes Dodge and Burn such a terrific and complete listen is how much ground it effectively covers and how furiously it does so. The quartet test out post-punk, classic rock, and alt rock within a blues framework, with several other genre-flecked undertones bubbling up in the span of about 40 minutes. “Rough Detective” is a duet so precisely composed that it can be hard to differentiate between the two leads. Mosshart is almost searingly contemptuous over the mashing chords of “Be Still”. The most stunning and well-executed curveball on Dodge and Burn is closer “Impossible Winner”, which enlists a string quartet and piano accompaniment to back a commanding Mosshart vocal performance fit for a stage show. It’s a fine microcosm of an album — and a band — that refuses to settle.
Essential Tracks: “Three Dollar Hat”, “Open Up”, and “Impossible Winner”