[Third Man; 2010]

The clear highlight of Sea of Cowards, the sophomore release from the Dead Weather, the latest in a long line of projects from White Stripes/Raconteurs frontman Jack White, is the album’s third track. White has gone on record claiming “The Difference Between Us” was born from his recent fascination with Lady Gaga, and while Alison Mosshart’s chorus does have a little “Bad Romance” to it, a more accurate description of the song is that it’s a grungier, more Nuggets-y rewrite of the Raconteurs’ 2006 single “Steady As She Goes.” It’s all fuzzed-out guitar, fuzzed-out organ, and fuzzed-out vocals, and it’s pretty fantastic—and makes me wish the band had used 1967 as a jumping-off point for the whole album.

Make no mistake: Sea of Cowards is very good, sometimes great. The riffs are hot, the hooks are there, and the vocal interplay between White and Mosshart is as natural as anyone White has ever worked with. There isn’t a bad song on the record. But this is basically what we’ve come to expect from Jack at this point, and the presence on the record of a killer like “The Difference Between Us” shows that there are facets of what he does that haven’t been fully explored. For all the credit the White Stripes get as a pillar of the early-2000s “garage rock” movement, they’ve never written a song with this much pure power-pop energy. An entire Jack White album of Nuggets outtakes would be utterly drool-worthy.

With that said, the rest of the album is pretty damn solid. Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita’s work on tracks like “Blue Blood Blues,” “No Horse,” and “Jawbreaker” channels mid-‘70s Deep Purple in the best possible sense, and “Gasoline” earns a spot on the Awesome Organ-Based Jack White Songs list, right up there with the Stripes’ “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and the Raconteurs’ “Store Bought Bones.”

Sea of Cowards is another solid entry in Jack White’s body of work, and shows clear growth from the Dead Weather’s debut Horehound. Still, I have to wonder what would happen if White wrote a whole album’s worth of “The Difference Between Us.” He’s got this minimalist blues-rock thing down about as well as anybody will ever have anything down, and there are still directions within that sound he could go. The best moments on Sea of Cowards offers tantalizing hints of that.