It’s been a very exciting month for vinyl enthusiasts with the momentous release of Jack White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, as a 12-inch ‘Ultra LP’ (as well as a boring old CD and digital download, of course). Having just got hold of a copy myself, I here attempt to find out just what the hell an Ultra LP actually is, while trying to make some sense of the tracks on offer, which are variably ‘hidden’, to be played at 78rpm, or subject to a choice of two intros, after having been recorded using ‘absolutely zero compression’.
It was clear to me, ever since the announcement of a new Jack White solo album back in April, that the only honourable way to listen to it would be on vinyl. I was persuaded that, with all the considerable effort the singer was putting into the LP format, it would be quite rude to listen to it any other way. Insulting, even. And so, after hearing a very amiable White discussing the item on a teatime radio interview with Steve Lamacq a few weeks ago, I got so excited that I actually pre-ordered it over the internet, something I never actually do. Extravagant, huh?
But it should come as no surprise that White has developed a disc so compelling as the Ultra LP because, as founder of the independent Third Man Records label, he has adopted a remit to breathe new life into the much-loved vinyl format, through the use of sophisticated yet strangely retrograde studio equipment. I find it easy to imagine him, in fact, as a sort of musical Willy Wonka figure, presiding over an army of white-coated Oompa Loompas at Third Man HQ in Nashville, as they pursue such innovations as recording live bands ‘direct to acetate’ and producing vinyl masters in real time. In this fanciful role, he has latterly overseen the recording of Neil Young’s new covers album within a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth onto a phonograph disc using, we are told, ancient electro-mechanical technology (whatever that actually means). Consequently, as a major-league champion of analogue recording techniques and formats, White has chosen to follow up his excellent Blunderbuss LP (2012) with a 180-gram vinyl disc that he boasts is replete with a whole gamut of secrets and surprises – and possible firsts.
While waiting for my pre-order to work out for me, I watched White spend a full ten minutes demonstrating how to play his new record on a YouTube video, alongside techie cohort Ben Blackwell, while making many claims that, quite frankly, I had quite a bit of trouble getting my head around. The two of them talked of two hidden tracks beneath the centre labels, one of which could be played at 78rpm and the other at 45rpm, making it a three-speed record. They also said that side one plays from the inside out, and that on one track on the flipside there is a dual groove that plays either an electric or acoustic intro, depending on where the needle drops! They went on to suggest that both sides, one replete with a matt finish, ended with locked grooves (in the style of the Sgt. Pepper album), while a hologram appeared on side two when it had a light shined on it. All this was pleasingly mind boggling, though I worried slightly for my trusty Goodmans GSP308 and whether it was up to performing some of these tricks. I even wondered, despite reassurances from Jack and Ben that you didn’t need any fancy turntabling equipment, whether the Ultra LP would in fact knacker my trusty Goodmans GSP308 (which I purchased, you must understand, with the earnings from my very first job as a petrol station attendant, giving it much sentimental value).
Despite my concerns, I was pleased to eventually receive my Ultra LP on a fine day in mid June, slightly later than anticipated because the first batch had seemingly sold out very quickly at Amazon on pre-orders alone. I immediately made it my mission to start looking for any visible differences the record may have to other more run-of-the-mill records, though to little avail. The sleeve, for one thing, looks like a regular bluish sleeve, incredibly stylish and rubberised as it is, showing White all suited and booted amongst some angel statues (though still looking worryingly pale in the face). The title of ‘Lazaretto’, too, is typical Jack, a rarely used word, like ‘blunderbuss’, denoting a hospital for persons with infectious diseases, while the lyric sheet showcases reliably madcap lyrics (‘But I dig ditches like the best of ’em. Yo trabajo duro. Como en madera y yeso’). Meanwhile, I found that the acknowledgements feature the characteristically nutty ‘thank you’s to such ‘physical and spiritual’ inspirations as food, God, the internet, 80s movies, tea, coffee and sugar. I also discovered that the actual vinyl is the completely orthodox colour of black. However, on closer inspection, one surefire difference is that the disc is certainly a lot thicker than regular records, and, yes, side two does indeed have a matt finish, giving it the appearance of a shellac 78rpm record from days of yore.
I later had a window, ahead of the Russia/South Korea World Cup match, to actually play the Ultra LP, as much fun as it is to just look at it and hold it. I lovingly placed it onto my record player, but quickly found myself having to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning simply to place the needle into the middle of the record as the method of starting it off! But once I shook off my mental chains, I observed that the first track, the bluesy ‘Three Women Blues’, played magnificently, and that side one does indeed play from the inside out – a feat I have never, EVER seen my turntable perform. Ever. And as one who likes to watch needles on revolving records anyway, I found this outplaying aspect of the disc enormously satisfying, being enough to hold my attention for a full 20 minutes as I listened to the music. I also affirmed the opening track to be an enjoyable take on the old Blind Willie McTell song from 1928, with White’s own unique lyrics and guitar riffs laden on top. The subsequent title track, as I also beheld, features the mother of all distorted bass lines and an utterly abrasive garage-rock essence, which, while sounding like a complete mess to some, is one of White’s most adventurous songs to date, with the brilliantly surly line ‘When I say nothing, I say everything’ bawled out in his familiar demented yowl. ‘Temporary Ground’, on the other hand, offers up the sweetest of melodies, followed by a bombastic ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ ahead of a rare instrumental, ‘High Ball Stepper’. Then, at the end of the latter track, yes, I can confirm that there is a locked groove. which works well, and which makes a freaky-as-hell guitar noise – for ever.
When I turned the Ultra LP over, I discovered after a fair bit of fiddling that, yes indeedy, there are two different intros to the track ‘Just One Drink’ – an electric one and an acoustic one. I will say, though, that there is a noticeable skip when the dual grooves merge part-way through the song. I will further say that I prefer the electric version, thanks very much. But, moving on, I found that I didn’t have the patience to listen to the whole of side two in my hurry to try out the hidden-track business beneath the label. Disappointingly, however, I only got the sound of my needle scraping over the paper, reminding me of how some daft people (before CDs) used to tape coins onto the arm of their record player so as to add more weight to the stylus. I wasn’t going to implement this technique here, though, so I let the hidden track remain hidden at this point. I was extra uncertain, anyway, of how I would play a 78rpm hidden track if I didn’t have a 78rpm function on my turntable…
Even if I was to grow weary of all this vinyl trickery (which I won’t!), Jack has given me the option of downloading the album for free with a special code included with my record, which might actually be a good plan for listening to it on my iPod, when I am ‘on the go’. But, all in all, I am grateful to the great man for producing such a strong and (mainly) angry album that covers such an impressive range of styles – blues, folk, county – and focuses gloriously on how his woman has treated him bad (may she continue to do so). I am additionally grateful that he has released it as an Ultra LP, because it serves as a timely reminder of just what a wild and adventurous experience listening to music can be when listened to on vinyl. For his next album, however, Jack might like to tackle the age-old problem of how to turn records over without having to vacate the comfort of one’s comfy chair. (Maybe he could put side one and side two on the same side? With a matt finish.) The possibilities are endless.
N.B. Jack White’s Lazaretto has now broken the record for biggest one-week vinyl sales in the U.S. Whoo hooo!