Boarding House Reach
As the artistic mastermind behind rock duo The White Stripes and creator of his own independent music, veteran rock-and-roller White has always been a stickler for his own rules — he notably stuck with a single color scheme for costumes and strictly limited himself to do-it-yourself recording technology. However, in “Boarding House Reach,” his third independent album, he has broken all of his self-imposed guidelines. He switched from analog technology to digital and teamed up with studio instrumentalists who have worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay–Z. Although this experimentation could have opened doors for White to create more cutting-edge music, he has taken the idea too far. The album’s 13 songs blend into noise rather than sounding like a carefully crafted record.
White pulls inspiration from a range of genres — Parliament-esque funk, jazz piano, a gospel choir, gritty prog-rock guitar and even bongos form a jarring combination. In “Ice Station Zebra,” White tries his hand at rapping. In a few golden moments, these combinations are tantalizing; they come so close to vividly juxtaposing musical homages. “Respect Commander” captures one such moment — a lazy drum beat and a screeching guitar overwhelm the listener in the best possible way. The mostly instrumental “Corporation” combines bongos, a drum machine and tambourine to create a punk-funk bop. The track is cohesive and fun rather than overwrought. The weirdness, for once, is purposeful.
These moments almost fit together into a coherent composition but end up falling into the wrong kind of absurdity. Besides a few key guitar riffs, the songs sound flat and heavily manufactured. But rather than a purposeful stylistic choice, the artificiality sounds amateur. Sparse instrumentals and slow pacing makes “Why Walk a Dog?” sound like a bad Spotify demo. “Hypermisophoniac” has a background of industrial noise and fuzzy, distorted vocals. Each track samples seemingly random instrumentals, as if a child was taught the basics of GarageBand and got too excited by the sheer number of sounds that could be layered on top of one another.
Though the heavy-handed instrumentals verge the songs into noise, three tracks on the album go a step further — they are incomprehensible slam poems over a piano or drum beat. In “Abulia and Akrasia,” White adopts a confusing faux-Southern accent and rhymes as many pretentious four-syllable words as he can. “Ezmeralda Steals the Show” includes soft acoustics, a rarity on the album, but its lyrics are lacking. The line “their faces to their gadgets fall south,” among others, reads like a parody of edgy opinions but is delivered with an embarrassing earnestness. Overall, the song-poems don’t serve as a break in the album or contribute anything of substance. They seem to be there for the sake of it.
That’s the essential problem of “Boarding House Reach” — in his attempt to break past stifling limits, White has also thrown out any semblance of structure. This would be bearable if the album wasn’t completely devoid of self–awareness, playfulness or levity. Certain moments, when the improbable combinations fit together, border on brilliance. However, they’re buried under a claustrophobic amount of clutter.
Music doesn’t need to be comprehensible to be enjoyable. However, “Boarding House Reach” is neither fun to listen to, nor does it give the impression of being technically well-crafted. White has created stunning music in the past, and his understanding of different genres is clear. He just hasn’t yet found a way to make sense of his newfound freedom.