Regardless of your listening habits or past run ins with The Dead Weather’s expansive musical family tree – The White Stripes, Kills, Queens of the Stone Age, and Raconteurs among them – it’d be difficult to refute the evidence that their sophomore LP unrepentantly rocks hard and heavy. Whether or not the furious barrage of dark blues-rock on Sea of Cowards makes an indelible mark however, depends largely on what you’re jonesing for when you give it that first spin. If it’s vicious and unrelenting catharsis (35 minutes, to be exact) that you seek, look no further; Jack White and Alison Mosshart exhibit the kind of devilish, vitriolic performance that’s hard to ignore. But if it’s textural nuances and carefully sequenced bits of tension and release that you’re after (peppered with the occasional sing-along melody), don’t hold your breath. If this album was an epic action flick, it’d be like starting and stopping the film to coincide with the final battle scene.
Seriously though, didn’t we all see this coming? In the past ten years, White first spurred a garage rock revival with The White Stripes and then indulged slightly more psychedelic ambitions with the art pop of The Raconteurs. As eclectic as each act was however, a penchant for classic rock and blues flowed thick in the blood of both, and with The Dead Weather, one of indie rock’s most enigmatic figures finally gets to let it all hang out.
Returning only a mere ten months after the release of Horehound, this supergroup – which also includes QOTSA veteran guitarist Dean Fertita and bespectacled Raconteurs bassist Jack Lawrence – plays with the same kind of ferocity and ravenous hunger that was the focal point of their debut. Blues legend Robert Johnson once sang about a hellhound being on his trail – a shadowy and evil specter lurking just over his shoulder. On Sea of Cowards, The Dead Weather leaves a blackened trail of smoldering blues wreckage trying to outrun similar demons.
The band operates at full throttle from the downbeat of “Blue Blood Blues” and never looks back. Anchored by Fertita’s sludgy guitar riffage, the tune is all sass and sinew as White happily bashes away on the kit and spews lines like, “All the neighbors get pissed when I come home / I make ‘em nervous.” The track has all the devil-may-care posturing of the other ten tracks, but succeeds largely because it shows deference to something the album’s latter half does not: hooks and melodies. “Hustle and Cuss” is maddeningly repetitive, but it’s awesome listening to Mosshart and White trading vocal jabs with one another (“Hustle and cuss / and lick on the dust”) while the band jams on a swamp-funk Jack Lawrence bass line. Lead single “Die by the Drop” is delightfully perverse, coming off like the most unsettling marriage ceremony you’ve every witnessed as the two vocalists exclaim, “I’m gonna take you for worse or for better” over a bedrock of raging guitars and drums. A rarity on Sea of Cowards, the song – which doesn’t completely explode into chaos until the first minute has passed – is a good example of how much more satisfying a chorus can be when you’re made to wait for it.
Sadly, the album devolves into gratuitous and monotonous jamming on its second side. The last five tracks are all less than three minutes in length, and seem slipshod by comparison. “Gasoline” has a fluttering organ rhythm that intrigues, but the continuously abrasive vocals and serrated guitar lines quickly grow dull. Closer “Old Mary” is a macabre take on the famous Catholic prayer (Old Mary / full of grief / your heart stops within you”), set to caterwauling guitar and keyboard effects.
Sea of Cowards, for all its snarkiness and caustic overtones, is ultimately a fun record, but it’s likely the band had way more fun playing it than I did listening to it. Cranking the volume up to 11 and rocking out is always a good time, but boredom creeps up more quickly when you’re the one with the headphones on instead of the guitar.