BlunderbussJack White (XL/Columbia)
Where has Jack White been all these years? We know the official story — making blues-pop with the Raconteurs, singing Bond themes with Alicia Keys, producing for ex-wife Karen Elson, licensing ferocious mater-ial to crummy ad campaigns. But the White who roasted eardrums with the White Stripes on the “Elephant” album has been curiously MIA; he has been too cheerful, temperate or unfocused to bring the pain with such deranged conviction. On “Blunderbuss,” that White is back, taking berserk inspiration from heartbreak and reclaiming the emotionally raw blues-rock territory he ceded to other artists. he draws inspiration from the same sources he did in his Stripes days: Led Zep, the Doors, the Faces, “the White Album,” classic blues 45s (this set includes a thunderous version of Rudy Toombs’ “I’m Shakin’ ”). he gives the impression that he writes his lyrics in a rush, but he’s a pro at turning out memorable phrases, and has never been more thrillingly acrid than he is here. There’s more piano than Stripes fans might like, but every time he picks up his six-string to solo, he shows why hard, embodied blues will always sound contemporary.
Little Broken HeartsNorah Jones (Blue Note/EMI)
Like “Blunderbuss,” Norah Jones’ “little Broken Hearts” is a breakup album. Like Jack White, Jones is angrier and more vulnerable than she has been in a long time. “the Fall,” Jones’ 2009 album, was an aggressive step forward, but didn’t entirely convince; “Broken Hearts” succeeds where its predecessor did not by dispensing with the loud guitar and concentrating on raw, lovelorn, occasional arresting storytelling. “Miriam,” in particular, is Jones at her most direct: she promises to torture and kill a romantic rival. (Sounds like she means it, too.) Producer Danger Mouse, who co-wrote the entire set with Jones, matches the sharp melodies with accompaniment that owes a bit to Tom Waits at his most atmospheric, a bit to Rilo Kiley at its most languorous and strung-out, and a bit to Elvis Costello at his most impressionistic. very little of the music could be described as jazz, or even jazzy, so longtime fans might see “Broken Hearts” as further proof of the artist’s defection. But Jones is more interesting as a pop star than she ever was as a chanteuse, and it’s nice to see that she’s finally figured out how to get there.
On its third album, genre-bending string quartet Ethel honors New York composers with a sophisticated, sometimes dark and viscerally appealing set tinged with rock, funk and bluegrass.
Don Byron’s String Quartet no. 2: “Four thoughts on Marvin Gaye” provides an interesting take on the title musician, with the quartet digging deep into accessible and familiar material, sometimes with quirky bent pitches and unison percussive col legno playing. at the same time, the music veers off into swooning harmonics, glaring dissonances and anxious skitters, occasionally calling to mind Shostakovich.
One could ask for more variety among the repetitive grooves and pile-ups of meandering riffs on “Heavy,” but the tight bond among the musicians is always a joy to hear. the most memorable works are Julia Wolfe’s frenetic, hard-driving “Early that Summer,” which ends in only semi-relief, and David Lang’s “Wed,” in which sustained tones hover tenderly and reverently among piquant melodies and overlapping pulses that are strong but never aggressive. Violist and composer Kenji Bunch joins Ethel for his inviting, balanced and cohesive String Circle no. 1.