White’s new ‘ultra LP’ has bells, whistles, riffs
Jack White is divisive. Polarizing. He’s rock-and-roll cilantro. He’s an uncompromising neo-rocker with big ideas. He’s a cocky traditionalist with a big mouth. He’s both.
So it only makes sense that the former White Stripes frontman is releasing his second solo album, Lazaretto, in a format that feels both ancient and brand new. He’s calling it an “ultra LP” – a 12-inch vinyl record that contains secret grooves, never-ending drones and “holograms” that materialize in the record’s surface once the platter begins to twirl.
These whistles and bells were presumably dreamed up inside the black brick walls of Third Man Records, the label White operates in his adopted home of Nashville, Tenn. It’s a fascinating place. In addition to housing the label’s offices and a performance venue, the building is also home to a record store where fans can buy miniature wax replicas of White’s guitar or step into a recording booth and cut a 6-inch phonographic single. Neil Young recently stepped into the booth and stepped out with his latest album.
Lazaretto wasn’t recorded in the booth, but White’s ultra LP still feels true to the weirdo spirit that breezes through Third Man headquarters. This is a record that peacocks for our attention, then demands our engagement. And like White’s best rock songs, it invites us to experience an old thing in a new way.
Last month, White took to YouTube to explain the various features of the ultra LP. I secured a copy to find out if those features were gimmicky geegaws or if they effectively served his new music.
1. The Reverse Groove
How it works: Instead of placing the needle on the outer groove of the record, side A of Lazaretto begins toward the center of the record and plays outward.
The result: Right away, this inky disc asks us to defy our intuition, which is a wonderful thing. We’re paying attention. So first up: “Three Women,” a song by Piedmont bluesman Blind Willie McTell, whose lyrics White has updated so that it might be about online dating. The song ends with violent gusts of harmonica that foreshadow wilder noises to come.
2. The “Holograms”
How it works: There are etchings on the surface of the record that catch light in a way that creates the illusion of two spinning angels.
The result: It’s a trick. A beautiful little trick. A trick to keep us staring. Staring at the record. And listening. Very cool. Very pretty. See? It works. Which is great because there’s a lot to listen to here. In the White Stripes, White made great rock-and-roll out of his limitations, but now he’s riding the pendulum in the opposite direction, creating something raw out of excess. It’s most evident on the ornate and proggy “Would You Fight for My Love?,” a tune overflowing with nasty guitars, nastier organs, drama, arrogance and skill.
3. The Dual Groove
How it works: The first song on side B, “Just One Drink,” has two separate intros – one electric, one acoustic. Which intro you hear depends on where you drop the needle. But after a few measures, the two grooves merge into one and the rest of the song continues in its electric state.
The result: I ran into problems with this. The acoustic version dovetailed into the second half of the song seamlessly, but when I dipped the needle into the electric version, the record made an ugly skip as the grooves were supposed to merge. Only the acoustic intro played without a hiccup. Silver lining: the acoustic intro is superior. And based on the advance digital stream of Lazaretto on iTunes, it appears to be exclusive to the ultra LP format.
4. The Under-label Grooves
How it works: There are hidden tracks pressed into the vinyl beneath the decals on each side of the record. In White’s demonstration video on YouTube, the needle of his record player reads those hidden grooves through the paper label.
The result: I only heard the hiss of the needle scraping paper. Do I need more weight on the tone arm of my record player? Should I try to remove those decals with lighter fluid? For now, White’s hidden tracks are staying hidden. And I like that. This isn’t an album that’s ready to cough up all of its secrets just yet.