That rattle and clang can only mean one thing: Jack White's comin' 'round the mountain, pushing his trusty rusty shopping cart of American musical artifacts and curiosities. This time, he's peddling his second solo album, "Lazaretto," the latest in a long line of records he's more or less masterminded since his days fronting the White Stripes. Way back when, he passed himself off as a Motor City garage rocker, but since parting with drummer and ex-wife Meg White and founding Third Man Records, he's revealed himself to be an eccentric huckster with no shortage of energy or ideas.
On "Lazaretto," White rummages through his cart and emerges with fiddles, organs, slide guitars, and fuzz boxes powered by hand-cranked generators. And is that a leftover plate of Ennio Morricone's Western spaghetti? Indeed, it is, and if it all adds up to a better album than his debut, "Blunderbuss," the reason may be his choice of collaborator: his 19-year-old self. As White has said in interviews, he wrote most of the music months before he composed the lyrics, and in order to find inspiration, he borrowed from poems and one-act plays he wrote 20 years ago, when he was all hunger and no experience.
Now, he's a man of the world -- a jokester and snake-oil salesman who also happens to be a fantastic singer and songwriter. Read on to get our track-by-track take on this wonky song-and-dance man's latest offering.
1. Three Women - Lordy, lord, Jackie's in a fix. He's got ladies in Detroit, California, and Nashville, and the only way to choose is to bust out the digital camera and take some comparative snaps. Actually, it's not such a bad problem to have, and amid the indecision, he serves up a whimsical riff rocker stuffed with organ, slide guitar, and piano and deep-fried in Southern grease.
2. Lazaretto - The surviving Beastie Boys have wisely decided to never tour or record again, but should they consider a replacement for MCA, they might holler at Jack White. "Lazaretto" is a hippity-hoppity garage cut—the closest White comes on this disc to evoking the thump and crunch those dang Black Keys sometimes get with the help of Danger Mouse.
3. Temporary Ground - White wrote this country tune after reading about giant lily pads able to support the weight of human beings, and as guest fiddler and singer Lillie Mae Rische saws away at her instrument, Jack lies back with a blade of grass in his teeth, contemplating god. He gets nowhere, but the fun is in the floating.
4. Would You Fight for My Love - The first 30 seconds have all the makings of a gunfight. Then, the tumbleweed blows past and Jack holsters his snarling six-string and gets behind the piano for a few lines about how he's scared of women and getting hurt. In the final act, the tumbleweed returns, and he's back on the dusty street, a soldier of love with a bandolero draped across his busted heart.
5. High Ball Stepper - Had White succeeded in writing words for this instrumental, he wouldn't have come up with anything better than that quasi-human howl created by the combo of Lillie Mae's fiddle and Ruby Amanfu's birdlike vocals. This is what art-rock bands play when they accidentally get booked at bars with sawdust on the floor.
6. Just One Drink - Jack's woman is treating him bad, and in true country fashion, he endeavors to find out why by uncorking a bottle of rye and getting her good and soused. White could probably bang out 50 songs like this a day without compromising the quality.
7. Alone In My Home - As on "Would You Fight for My Love?" White compares himself to a ghost and hints at crippling sadness he covers with jaunty saloon piano. Although he claims to have recycled his teenage writings, lines like, "These stones that are thrown against my bones, break through / But they hurt less as times goes on" seem about right for a guy who's been through two marriages.
8. Entitlement - For his next trick, White simultaneously plays rebel and old codger, raging against conformity in one breath and cursing those damned entitled teenagers in the next. "Don't they feel like they've been cheated somehow?" he asks, a bit like Hank Williams futzing with an iPhone.
9. That Black Bat Licorice - If White is the modern King of the Riff, he might also be a spiritual descendent of the "King of Rock"—as in Run from Run-DMC. As the alliterative title suggests, "That Black Bat Licorice" is all funky-fresh wordplay, and Jack has a blast referencing Nietzsche, then atomic clocks, then the NYC neighborhood of Dumbo, which conveniently rhymes with "Columbo."
10. I Think I Found the Culprit - Evoking the classic image of two crows on a windowsill, full on ill-begotten pie, White compares love to conspiratorial crime. "Birds of a feather may lay together," he sings, "but the uglier one is always under the gun." One lover will always turn on the other, in other words—a truism as old as the vintage country he references with this piano and acoustic guitar.
11. Want and Able - Once again, White weighs entitlement and societal expectations, this time via two characters crossing the road. This one fella, Want, feels like stealing what he thinks he's due, while Able, the sensible one, tells him to straighten out and play it straight. Over cowboy piano and lazy acoustic guitar, White sympathizes with both. The thing he's after is a woman kept away by cruel circumstance. It sounds pretty hopeless, but hey, maybe Want and Able are in need of a traveling buddy. Either way, it's onward to the next adventure.