Dead Weather, The – Sea of Cowards

The whole super group concept can be a little unsettling. Last year saw the advent of so many rag-tag super groups it led many to deem 2009 as the “year of the super group.” The big four, as it were, of last year comprised the technical virtuoso powerhouse Chickenfoot, the indie folk  rockers Monsters of Folk, the supposed king-kahuna of rock n’ roll all-stars Them Crooked Vultures, and the energetic blues rock quartet the Dead Weather. Needless to say, when FOUR super group debut records were announced a year ago, the most naïve of music consumers were spouting tears of joy as the most suspicious started hitting the decks.

When all the dust cast up by the hype storms had settled, only the Dead Weather still stood tall with a substantial record and at least a semblance of credibility left to their names. Whether it was their combined musical genius or pure luck, the Dead Weather had chemistry. Horehound may have been the underdog (pun intended) of ’09 super group debuts, but it was hands-down the most potent. Indeed, there was some magic in the blend, be it the combined pop smarts of The Kills singer Alison Mosshart and Jack White of the White Stripes or the energetic musicianship of Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita and the Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence or both.

It’s been no more than a year since their debut, by no means a long amount of time, yet these four gifted musicians have already cracked out a full-length follow-up to Horehound. The question is, and one that’s been stalking the band from the get-go, how are they going to fare in the long haul? While it was far from perfect, Horehound was a peppery endeavor of self-absorption and attitude, flavored with backcountry character and some suspiciously incestuous innuendo in a hard southern blues context. Has Sea of Cowards lived up to the precedence set by its predecessor or proved another cough-up for the cynics that insist that super groups will never amount to anything more compelling than fan service?

The answer is a very peculiar “neither.” Sea of Cowards is a well-paced record with an incredibly smooth flow from track to track, yet the vivacity has somewhat waned in the past year. Their penchant for energetic rhythms with pop-sensitive vocal hooks has faltered, leaving the riffs to pick up the slack on the record. At most familiar comparison, the record is reminiscent of the grooves on “I Cut like a Buffalo” or classic De Stijl-era White Stripes; at most foreign, the bluesy riffs resemble a sludge-less rendition of Sleep or Black Sabbath, particularly on “I Can’t Hear You” and “No Horse.”

This absence of energy is partly due to the diminished tension between Mosshart and White. On Horehound, it seemed as if the two were locked in a constant struggle for center-stage. Their vocals jabbed back and forth in an endless feud of interlocking retorts. Though it never escalated to any direct verbal conflict between the two specifically, the tension was seething and contributed remarkably to the indignant tone on the record. The music video for “Treat Me like Your Mother” even depicted the two in an emblazoned firefight ending in the hole-ridden two walking away from the conflict in frustration. Being both frontmen of their respective bands, this clash of titans was entirely predictable, all the more potent, and intriguing on a menacing level.

This invigorating tension is all but gone on Sea of Cowards, with Mosshart taking vocal duties for nearly the entirety of the album, save for intro “Blue Blood Blues,” single “Die by the Drop,” and the sermon-like “Old Mary.” Indignant lines like “You’re a real jawbreaker/ A real crook, obscene” on “Jawbreaker” lack the punch they so demand with this absence of conflict. Jack White’s aggressive interjections are nearly all but gone, leaving Mosshart’s hoots and howls feeling unsatisfyingly non-directional. On this outing, White’s distinct blues-rock style is as clear as day in the writing, but all together it lacks the punch that made the Dead Weather (and even the White Stripes) so outstanding in the first place. It’s as if every member has been leashed, corralled to their respective duties, and compelled to carry them out rather than allowed their imaginations to roam.

While it’s rarely ever short of entertaining, Sea of Cowards is quite disappointing as a follow-up for a super group that possessed so much promise no more than a year ago. In summation, it’s nostalgic at its best and entirely ordinary at its worst, scarcely reflective of the former energy that the band had captured in their surprisingly competent debut, much less in the members’ former groups. They’re no The Kills; they’re no White Stripes; they’re The Dead Weather, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean as much as it did just a year ago.

by Mason “At least they didn’t get John Mayer too” McGough

1 Comment

  1. New Review! The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards, by Mason McGough […]

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