Wednesday, November 18, 2009

#15 Screwdriver

If it was chance encounter with David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream that threw the White Stripes together then it is Screwdriver that solidified them as a band. According to Jack the song materialized in the most Stripe-ish of fashions. One ‘rehearsal’ Meg casually pointed to a Screwdriver and said “why don’t you write a song about that?” Did Jack accept? Of course he did, he’s Jack White, and that is how Screwdriver was born which sounds cool enough but it’s actually one of the most important moments for those interested in the bands career because, in case you didn’t know, Screwdriver was the band’s first original song. If I were ordering this blog chronologically by conception (which would clearly be unachievable and futile) then this song would be number one. It is the beginning of the band as an independent creative unit. And what a way to begin.

While most songwriting debuts (and to be fair this isn’t Jack’s actual first song) are overshadowed by their significance and underwhelming in terms of quality Screwdriver is surprisingly masterful. It’s a real ‘get your ya-yas out’ and while I’ve already said this about a few other tracks, it manages to perfectly define the band in a single song. While not necessarily superior to the other milestone Let’s Shake Hands, Screwdriver is considerably more complex employing greater dynamics and a larger variety of motifs. It’s chock full of all the goodies, the killer hook, the clever rhymes, the loud climax and the softer and subdued moments. It’s all you need in 3 minutes.

As fun as the lyrics are the song, like about half of Jack’s work is built around one grand infectious riff that announces the songs beginning and from there we’re taken to many places and back. While Meg taps away Jack rambles away his brilliant stream-of-conscious rhymes over the soft strum of his guitar. Some of the couplets, while pretty nonsensical, are quite brilliant.

I call up Tommy now, call him on the telephone
Why don’t you wake up and come with me now
I’m going to the pawn and lone


What Jack is singing about is really nothing particularly special but the way it all comes together is quite effective. While Jack’s latest songwriting has become a sort of southern gothic style, due in no small part to his change of environment, here there is a greater influence of Detroit’s nature. Infusing a surrealist flow of words and banal bits of modernity, it’s almost like industrial beat poetry, which we see all throughout the album.

But ultimately what most makes Screwdriver memorable is it’s simplest moment, one that is illustrated best in concert. Jack and Meg, eyes fixed on each other, slamming out that power chord in sets of three with no consistent rythm holding the sound and silence together. All that is being relied upon is the near telepathic quality that holds the two together. It’s this that makes the band special and what 10 years of touring has been built around. So we really owe this song a lot.

Friday, October 16, 2009

#14 Do

Where later albums would often shroud Jack's lyrical purpose in ambiguity, The White Stripes is a rare oppurtunity to see him emotionally naked. Of course Jack never really over-complicates his words but it seems when approaching his most personal songs he shelters himself in am more mysterious wordplay. For example we know The Union Forever is about Citizen Kane as we know Take Take Take is about a fan's encounter with Rita Hayworth but these songs see Jack as more of a distant raconteur (no pun intended) where as more soulful and emotional songs often contain the most opacity. You can see this in Truth Doesn't Make A Noise, Same Boy You've Always Known and most importantly the wondefully weird I Cut Like A Buffalo which Jack declares is his most honest songwriting. However in their first LP we get a better insight into Jack's feelings. You can see it in the raging Big Three Killed My Baby, where his anger is unrefined and most prominently you can see it Do. There are less moments of personal introspection here but one could assume that as a private person this is due to an inability to cover his rawer moments of emotion which makes those moments open to the audience, if rarer.

However, it would be unfair to classify Do as an unedited diatribe of feelings because it is competently and cleverly written. It's an important moment in the album because while verbal accomplishments are not missing from the LP, with Do you can here them clearly (see Broken Bricks) and considering it follows Cannon, Astro, Broken Bricks and When I Hear My Name it is a well placed calm after the storm. A tender and unique album highlight.

Do is a reasonably easy song to analyse because it breaks up it's content into three main points divided amongst the verses (it's almost essay like in structure). The first two verses deal with social awkwardness which is a theme that crops up all throughout Jack's body of work. From Offend In Every Way to A Martyr For My Love For You he will constantly take on the role of an uneasy, almost neurotic social outcast. This also stems back to Jack's favorite song, Son House's Grinnin' In Your Face which he describes as illuminating the social paranoia that he grew up with. However one of the interesting aspects of Jack's exploration of this is he never finalizes on what is more to blame, his own uneasiness or the society that nurture's it. But Do is still a very sad song. Pleasant chord structure's a side it really casts a pessimistic view of the world ramping up the reasonably trivial awkward interactions of the first verse to the complete severing of social ties in the second.
Contrast:
...I think that my words could get twisted
So I bend my back over
Take a gulp, be funny
Cause I know there's nothing I can do
With:
...My eyes are lying
And they don't have emotion
Don't wanna be social
Can't take it when they hate me
But I know there's nothing I can do
It seems that there is a learning curve of  pessimism and the same world that confused the narrator in verse one has grown in it's sinister nature over the course of the next verse but this isn't really the case. I think it's a fair assumption that this isn't so much Jack commenting on society but a more personal reflection on his troubles comprehending it. The narrator's trouble communicating crumbles into an antisocial outlook and we're just left with that refrain of "there's nothing I can do" so the issue seems more self-perpetuated than externally perpetrated.

In the mid-section we get a very interesting and unique  look inside the artist side of Jack but even that could be  a miss-statement.  Are the thoughts that Jack feels he can never own of an artistic nature, implying we can never create something original or is he talking in a much broader sense? This passage also acts as a good foreshadowing to the severing of Jack's ties with the Detroit garage scene. Those who unite under independent thought are bound by that same longing, so how can they be truly independent? None of these are right or wrong interpretations. The verse is purposefully vague but gives us substantial phrases to ponder and adds a whole lot of depth to the song.

And we end with something that reflects Jack's view of modern culture well. As a man who's heroes are long dead men from the twenties who left behind nothing but a handful of recordings and one or two photographs it's no surprise he has a distaste for the intrusion of the modern celebrity. Think of Robert Johnson, simply a very good guitarist who liked his women like he liked his drink, but the fact that we know so little about him elevates him to a near-mythic position and I agree with Jack that that is simply impossible today. 

It's a destruction of a mystery
The more I listen to what they say

The mystery is destroyed. So if one cannot take solace in the people around them, their own thoughts or the people they look up to then I guess there's nothing left to Do.....

Sunday, October 4, 2009

#13 When I Hear My Name

While I've tried to give each song I've written about an individual life of it's own, a trend is definitely establishing itself that, while great live bursts of energy, some of the songs actually fall down on their own. I want to stop saying this because it's making me appear a poor writer and not doing an album I love justice but before I retire this train of thought I have to say one last thing.

Nothing hammers this point home further than When I Hear My Name a song of extreme simplicity, even for The White Stripes, yet somehow one that has become a live standard. You would think, upon listening to this album take that it warrants little discussion but this little song's legacy and history really is the cause for much discussion.

Let's forego the debut for a minute and flash forward to the bands first and only live DVD Under Blackbool Lights. I'm sure every White Stripes fan can remember flipping on their TV's in anticipation as their favorite band entered their living room. We see the White Stripes walking and smoking, on their way to the venue as a crowd's anticipation increases in the background. The scene switches to the stage as Jack and Meg enter, devoid of fanfare and, without warning, smash (yes this is the right verb) their way into When I Hear My Name. It's such a thrilling and merciless performance that it becomes and unforgettable moment for the band. What makes this performance so amazing, and also the reason it is such a fantastic set opener, is that it makes the audience completely aware they have played full ticket admission to see two people bash out chords with the finesse of 13 year olds. The music is so simple it would barely pass for a quick soundcheck even to an extent that the White Stripes "official historian" Ben Blackwell sarcastically declares it the duo's most complex song. I won't lie, when I went to my first live offering of the Stripes I was hoping for the concert to blast open with Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground which, with it's cool riff and loud-soft dynamics, is a much more sensible opener. But that's the precise point placing When I Hear My Name at top spot it defies the expectations and destroys decades of the cliches and protocols of rock music which the White Stripes went against. In that sense it is a complete artistic triumph and could hold up as the bands mission statement......

....but.....

The true problem with When I Hear My Name, evocative of a flaw of the album as a whole, is that, while the song functions fantastically when Jack and Meg are hitting you with it before your eyes, it comes across rather dull on the record. Yes dull, which is probably the least appropriate word for this record and is completely unthinkable in comparison to live renditions. Unfortunately there is nothing to When I Hear My Name and while that's it's point, when translated to a recorded environment it's value is questionable. That's not to say I loathe the song, or even particularly dislike it but with an already packed track listing it's inclusion on the album seems slightly redundant. Of course the song has to be released, we all need to be able to song along to the opening song after all, but it still seems like the closest thing to filler material the band has ever produced.

Maybe that's the band's magic, to turn what seems like a throwaway track into a live standard but it also could be the reverse. It has been stated that Jack was afraid of the recording and desired a sound that made the listener believe no studio was involved, and in a way the fact the album succeeds this is what makes it a masterpiece. But the flaws of When I Hear My Name may illuminate why this sound was needed. 

And hopefully that will end my negative comments towards this great album and a beacon of positivity will shine through on future posts.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

#12 Broken Bricks

Whenever I go to make a post for a song I always try and listen to that song a few times and not let it play through to others. So I started my turn table, placed the needle at the beginning and when Broken Bricks had finished I stopped it and just began to laugh.

The reason I find the song so funny is that it presents any semi-dedicated listener with an unsolvable problem. The way Jack White sings in his shriek/howl all throughout the song renders the very clever lyrics completely inaudible but it is this style that makes the song what it is. The reason laughter was the only option for me was that going on to criticize the song's supposed shortcomings would be a complete act of futility. If you can't hear the lyrics that's your own damn problem because in it's own special way this song is 1:51 of complete perfection.

Musically Broken Bricks gives the album a real shot in the arm and while it would be utterly ridiculous to call Cannon and Astro calm before a storm this song does seem to up the ante a bit. It's well placed at the beginning of the B Side because it drags the listener kicking and screaming back into the album and never really stops to breath. Outside the context of it's album it's important because this "ruthless garage thrasher" mould for a song gets used so much throughout the times of The White Stripes that it's hard t0 think of the band without Broken Bricks (well im sure they would have still used this mould but the track's still of somewhat importance). Think of Black Math or Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine even breakthrough hit Fell In Love With A Girl owes something to this take-no-prisoners style. It's probably worth noting that this more accurately begins with Let's Shake Hands but by Broken Bricks it's on another level and maybe better than ever a studio track manages to capture their live spirit.

Of course what makes Broken Bricks such a sick joke is that it's lyrics, that no one has ever managed to hear, are more or less genius. One of the important things to have in mind when doing any kind of examination of the lyrics of this album are the quite poignant liner notes Jack provides. More than later albums it's easy to see how Jack expresses the theme he chooses in his notes when listening to the songs (I mean can anyone say that "the death of the sweetheart" is really that obvious in Elephant).

you would play and have fun by yourself and then you saw other children playing and you climbed your fence and went to play with them and it was fun.....

Essentially the Broken Bricks was once over that fence, and if you go on to read you can see that the album is primarily concerned with a death of innocence and an effortless attempt to recreate it. It adds more dimension to the band's aesthetic, instead of being simple recreations of childhood they are more biting reminders of what has been lost. The death of innocence seems like a cliched idea to revolve an album around but it comes across as fresh and is quite seperate from the rest of the band's catalogue. On later songs (i.e. We Are Going To Be Friends) Jack has moved on and is now mornfully celebrating this innocence instead of angrily protesting it's extinction. It fits in with the rest of the album, they are permantly on the offensive in these songs. It's all about the attack here.

In the song The Broken Bricks is a place where all childhood and adolescent milestones take place. First kisses, first punch and some bizzare things that don't exactly seem symbolic of innocence but nonetheless all revolve around a natural humanity. As the song progresses Jack starts to indicate it's decay and how it has succumbed to the mechanical age. Eventually we get the quite horific clincher: don't go to the broken bricks. All the humanity of the site has been robbed and it is now cast aside as the simple numerical value of Building C. No exactly a nice story. Once again those fat cats have screwed over the little guy and the big three claims another baby. It's these songs that form the most overt ties to Detroit, the city that suffered the short end of industrialisation. To this day Jack has never been one to embrace technological development (well barring The Vault) and essentially this song, this album and a large chunk of their output is centred around industry vs. humanity.

No lyrical interpretation is concrete so it's worth giving a second examination. It's also quite possible the Broken Bricks was never a place you would want to be and is itself a symbol of the bad guys in suits with machines. Whichever meaning you choose to except the over all theme holds true.

It's not often performed live* but Broken Bricks should always be remembered as an important track both musically and lyrically for the band. Even if you don't dig it personally it certainly is a quintessential representation of who they are and what they stand for.

*Having said that, here is an awesome and even more incomprehensible version from The Stripes'  05 Glastonbury set (it's after Cannon):


Sunday, September 6, 2009

#11 Astro

It's 1999. You are in Detroit. You stop off at the Magic Stick for a drink. You feel like dancing. Well you better hope that The White Stripes are playing Astro.

It's a not-often discussed aspect of The White Stripes, particularly at this stage in their career, but they do have a great pop sensibility at times. I mean they can come up with some of the wackiest s*** to grace the airwaves (Icky Thump, Blue Orhid) but when you look at songs like You're Pretty Good Looking or You Don't Know What Love Is you can see how they really have an admiration for the great pop songwriters (well I guess that explains the Brendan Benson collaboration). In 2000 the band were very much into the punk DIY aesthetic so you'd be hard pressed to find a break-away pop hit but Astro shows some symptoms. In reality you would have to be crazy to think it would make it into the charts but maybe in Detroit clubs it could become a dance floor staple. A boy can dream.

All the parts are here. You've got the guitar hook, the heavy drum beat and the repetitive sing along lyrics. And with Jack always telling you about people doing the Astro it really is asking for it's own dance. I was too young in 99 and I sure as hell wasn't in Detroit so I can only guess what song had people grooving the most during those early shows but this certainly is a contender. But is that really a good thing. I mean I've enforced the task of making myself write a short essay on this song and that ain't easy. It begs the question: Is this too simple, even for the Stripes? Not quite but can anyone claim Astro is their favorite song? I didn't think so. It's fun but I've said that twice already so where do I go from here?

Astro is a perfect example of the fundamental flaw with the first album, as it is based on material culled from live sets, what stands tall as bursts of energy on the stage often fall flat in their recorded form. Jack may have foreseen this because when speaking of the recording sessions, Jim Diamond describes how Jack specified he wanted the album to sound like a live show. In some ways every recording artist claims an allegiance to this idea but this album is a rare example of a band following through and delivering something that's fidelity is sabotaged to give it an unpolished quality. Jack's certainly too smart to not separate the two platforms of the band's output at all but in many ways he succeeds here in making an album that's exuberance leaps off the record creating an adrenaline rush of an album.... which let's us overlook some possibly half-done songs?

The point I can draw from Astro is that as a cohesive whole The White Stripes holds up as a highlight due to it's sheer ferocity but take it apart song by song, which is exactly what I am doing, and you may find holes. So does that mean that there's a problem with my method or is the album fundamentally flawed? I think we know the answer.

In many ways it's an album that stands as the polar opposite to their most recent release Icky Thump where every song could be the starting point for a different album. It's an age-old debate over the formula for a classic album: the elective approach versus the cohesive approach. Both valid stances to take. Both great albums. But for the purposes of this blog the former is more difficult to maintain, hence the gap between posts. So on paper songs like Astro have their shortcomings.

That being said, I highly doubt anyone would protest when that stomping riff is pulled out at any White Stripes concert.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

#10 Cannon

Welcome to Jack and Meg's armageddon...
I was thinking of just putting the song up to listen to and just say that opening line and leave the post at that. But of course that would be cheating and I think there's quite a lot to be said for this song. The cannonball riff (pun very much intended), combined with the John The Revelator interlude, all evoke a truly apocalyptic mood ranging from a personal destruction to one of biblical proportions. Of course once again this deadly storm is only achieved as a result of the ruthlessly unrestrained and unrefined sound that defined them in these years.

As great as it is to talk about the images of destruction that this song conveys I can't get through this without mentioning the fantastic riff that the song revolves around . A disclaimer for this blog: when I discuss a song, it's live incarnations are a part of it's existence so as much as I love this studio recording I have to use the live versions as the greatest evidence of this riffs power. It's like the ace in Jack's sleeve. Just as Dead Leaves/When I Hear My Name announce the concerts arrival and Seven Nation Army draws it to a close, Cannon is the song that breaks the ice. It may seem a tad pedantic to examine it's placement in set lists but there's a basic logic to my observation. The band's concerts are based on Jack's love of the idea of songs simply falling apart and this unstable and unpredictable set structure is what makes them so appealing. However a concert usually begins with a few 'proper' renditions of songs and ends with the same thing (Under Blackpool Lights being a good example) but as great as these songs are they are entrĂ©es and desserts with the real meat and potatoes being the craziness of the middle and while finding patterns in White Stripes sets goes against their nature it seems there is a predominant introduction to the main course, and that is.... yup, Cannon.

Is it really hard to see why? The song is built to collapse in on itself. The only sense of stability offered are the brief verses with Meg offering a sense of order to counter Jack's menacing riff but that slowly descends into chaos as Jack rambles the last words bringing this section to a close and then the real chaos can begin. It seems a tad pretentious to say this but, just as Beethoven's fifth is likened to knocking on death's door, Cannon's explosive breakdown really does emulate a bunch of cannon's going off. In fact the entire song sounds like the soundtrack to a battlefield with the verse playing the role of the march, the solo guitar hitting the first notes of the breakdown, declaring first shot and then with Meg's bashing the war becomes a full on assault.... and then Son House comes in? All in all it shows the strengths of the concept of a song collapsing (and it literally sounds like something collapsing) and this is why it has become an essential aspect of the band's set..... and we haven't even gotten to the Son House bit.

The inclusion of traditional blues song John The Revelator (which I attribute to Son House because that's clearly how it came to Jack) strengthens my first two main points about this song. The red, white and black apocalypse I was alluding to before is brought home when Jack adds in a biblical element, dropping the book of revelations into the mix. If the song was so far simulating a war then it's this little excerpt that kicks it over the edge into armageddon. We could argue until the cow's came home about whether this song speaks of an inner-conflict, a man-made struggle or a mythical rapture but it would be a waste of time since the lyrics are so brilliantly vague. All the pieces are there, make what you like of it, that's great songwriting. 

The inclusion of John The Revelator also exemplifies the collapse of songs the band does so well. What's interesting about this is that it's the first time it truly happens on record. Before Jack was turning Fell In Love With A Girl into Little Room on Letterman, this was the prototype of a now established formula. However as I said on the Wasting My Time post, all these ideas that were popping up on album one were perfected on later albums which is what I find problematic. With Cannon this is not the case and I still find it a concert highlight and a song I keep coming back to.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

#9 Wasting My Time

The nature of Jack White's talents are such that he has an extremely loyal and passionate fanbase that can be divided into two main categories. The first are those who love The White Stripes at their roughest and toughest, still buy everything the man produces, but honestly think Satan and Icky Thump were overdone, cringe when a new 'side-project' is announced and secretly wish for another White Blood Cells. The second are those who religiously follow everything the man does and find themselves instantly in love with everything he's laid his hands on from Let's Shake Hands to Another Way To Die. Of course I'm of the latter otherwise this blog would get tedious post-Elephant and I'd be violently rambling about 'the good old days'. The thing is, however, that as much as I worship all of his output there is one song that I find difficult and unless you thought I was being irrelevant you can see that it's Wasting My Time. The reason is that it contains countless elements that would find their way onto other White Stripes song and used more effectively and the fact that this one is pulled out almost every concert has put it in my mind that this is a song of slight tedium.

Which is quite sad because the original studio track has a lot going for it and so many things that make the White Stripes their unmistakably great selves are present here, some of them making their debut, but as I said before they've all been used better. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize a song based on tracks further down the line making it obsolete, in fact it's definitely unfair but I'd be lying if I didn't write down what these ears were telling me. Maybe that's the flaw of the first album, after all nothing is perfect, that so much of the inspiration present on their debut was taken over to future albums making those songs refined but unlike most bands it lacks the edge over those albums because the brash and uncontrollable explosiveness was never lost.

The guitar though is what makes it a great listen. It's all over the place with messy licks and uneasy tremelo but it works greatly to the bands advantage because with all the flaws of the guitars exposed you get to hear the fine little intricacies of what the pick-ups are sending out. It's this that I call pure guitar work. Jack frequently compares Meg's playing to Picasso's statement "it took years to learn how to paint like a child" but people frequently fail to see that in his guitar work. While we know he can be a supreme virtuosity the style here is just as compelling, emulating a child, knowing nothing but chords, pouring everything he has into the guitar as he strums. That's mainly why I started this blog, because when you dig only a little deeply you can find how Jack's personal philosophy manifests itself in the music. Here the childlike simplicity is exhibited as something precious rather than the self-conscious irony that the band are frequently misinterpreted as possessing.

It's hard to see why, when I'm praising this musical enlightenment of 1999 that I look upon this particular tune so harshly but I'll say it again: you can experience this sensation in numerous other songs of theirs and sadly just because this one did it first doesn't mean it's top dog. The vocals I also find pedestrian for Jack White; there's nothing wrong with them but we take for granted that in his more emotional songs, something I believe this one was going for, he is prone to really putting everything on the table and we don't quite get that here. Similarly with the lyrics, while there are flashes of something brilliant it never reaches finality the same way other songs on this album do. However I feel it's worth mentioning the line:

And I hope I'm not a fool
For laughing at myself as you were going

This deserves a place as one of the greatest lines about a lack of self-confidence (until Martyr For My Love For You comes along) and manages to elevate the song from a simple feeling of dismay to grander tragedy.

There's definitely a lot to like here and be sure that this is as negative as I'll get but I can't help how I feel. I'd certainly never skip this track but listening to it and talking about it at length simply brings to mind the other great songs in the bands repertoire.

Note: Let me apologies for the slow pace at the moment. I know there are few people reading but this is a bad start. It's difficult to write about this album because, while I love it, it achieves it's brilliance with a mindless explosion of distortion soaked Detroit anger and that can be hard to talk about for 17 songs. But I will soldier on and hopefully say something interesting. Keep posted though because in the near future this blog may evolve into something more than just a bunch of essays and will deliver some true treats to all you Jack fans.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

#8 Sugar Never Tasted So Good

Considering how simple and understated the song sounds Sugar Never Tasted So Good leaves an impression on the listener that it holds something special. For those of us who follow Jack White’s musical output closely you can see here how his rough blues-orientated brand of rock and roll could give way for more delicate songs which will go on to become more prominent in De Stjil, Get Behind Me Satan and most importantly his partnership with Brendan Benson. But compared to the poetics Satan or the clever pop dynamics of De Stjil this song is a much less intellectual effort by which I mean it forgoes thoughtful lyrical complexities for words of greater emotional depth. So it comes as no great surprise that Jack wrote this at the tender age of 19, or so the legend goes.

As you may have not noticed there has been a considerable gap between this post and the last one. The reason for this is because I was having troublle finding the main theme of what to talk about. At first I thought I’d discuss how we finally get to see Jack’s softer side but that seemed like an underdeveloped an obvious approach. There was an alternative angle discussing how the bands live interpretation of this song is a representation of a shared philosophy of live performances with Bob Dylan but that would have been mainly filler, bullshit with a tiny amount of worthwile observations. The reason I’m mentioning this is not for my own indulgence but to illustrate that Sugar Never Tasted So Good is difficult to talk about and I say that with the best of intentions.

It’s a song that compells and mystifies the listener. In a more naive state than the writer of later years Jack passes by a more self-conscious writing style to expose an honest and heartfelt song. The lyrics are often repetitive and never show a clear meaning and the fact that Jack never tries to intefer with this makes it more honest. It highlights his constantly spoken of search for truth. Speaking of how he develops his projects Jack explains that if something beautiful presents itself he believes he does not have the right to stop it or force it into something. While this is often taken as reference to the recording process you can see how it applies to the writing process as well. The song is unrefined and natural with all the emotion of it’s performer poured into it. In songs like these we can understand why Jack White is a soldier of truth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

#7 Suzy Lee

I doubt I'm alone when I say that I didn't start with The White Stripes' first album and then move forward, anticipating each release the same way I do now. They were America's best kept secret until White Blood Cells and I didn't begin my fandom until just before the release of Get Behind Me Satan and to my knowledge they're still gathering fans with Icky Thump. What I'm getting at is that often and quite ironically the first LP is often the last to be bought by the fan becoming aquatinted with the band for the first time. That's how it happened for me but because I had all but this album at my disposal (trendy step-father) when I began my Candy Cane Child phase, I had thoroughly immersed myself in their final four before I finally bit the bullet and bought this treasure. While I knew Cannon, Astro, When I Hear My Name and more from their live DVD Under Blackpool Lights the one track that I approached with the most anticipation was Suzy Lee. You can probably guess why. The character of Suzy Lee appears throughout the bands mythology on the well known We're Gonna Be Friends and in the dedication of Get Behind Me Satan. Knowing that Jack rarely wasted words I was enchanted by the mystery of who this woman/girl was as I'm sure many fans are. So upon purchasing the self-titled album, while I wasn't naive enough to expect an answer to her identity and you'd be naive in thinking I would even attempt to find an answer hear, I expected a grand song if it was to be named after Jack's elusive muse. I wasn't disappointed.

Seeing as the songs subject occupies a prominent place in his writing coupled with the lyrics I get the feeling that with here Jack was trying to write his definitive love song. The first sign of this is that he even puts a disclaimer at the beginning: "There's a story I would like to tell, the problem is it's one you too well". Jack believes that it is the responsibility of the songwriter to join the family of storytellers that have populated music from the early blues and here he makes his intentions clear. The lyrics never are cliched but they're big bold statements and it very much conveys the feeling that it is attempting to add itself to the great tradition of weight-of-the-world love songs. After all songwriting could not exist if it wasn't for the heartbreak of the girl (or guy) who's gone away. Then again it's better than waking up and finding your baby's dead. What makes the song strong is that Jack never shies away from the enormity of his subject matter, he constantly uses the big L word which in lesser hand often leads to a clumsy mess of a song. The fact that he takes his songs seriously and shows respect for the family of songs he's joining is what makes this a successful love song and is often what keeps Jack a few steps ahead of other songwriters.

As great as these lyrics are though, you can't underestimate the power of the vicious slide guitar with Jack joining forces with his teacher Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers. While I don't accept that school of thought that has The White Stripes and any of Jack's bands constantly compared to Led Zeppelin here I can see a real Zep sound coming through. The dark stomp that accompanies the refrain, all throughout would not feel out of place on one of their albums and it becomes even more Jimmy Page-ish when it breaks down into an epic guitar jam. With little overdubbing at this stage in his career Jack is yet to embrace his virtuosity completely but here him and Johnny share a rare six string indulgence. They delicately noodle during the verse and then go for a full throttle duel in the breakdown. This second guitar lends the song some subtlety not seen on the rest of the album, not that it's really needed.

Suzy Lee is a big song. It's got big lyrics. It's got big guitar. And of course it's got big drums but that sure ain't exclusive to this number. If you were to look at any of the more romantically inclined songs from the first two albums it's easy to see why this one became embedded in the bands myth for years to come.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

#6 The Big Three Killed My Baby

Only in Detroit....

For a band of two people, The White Stripes have many sides so it would be unfair to boil down their music to one uniting concept but one of the most prominent aspects of their mythology would have to be their home town of Detroit. While they moved beyond their garage scene origins in later recordings, the band were very much the children of Detroit's underground venues in their formative years. At this early stage Jack felt passionately about his city and felt he was inseparable from his home (remember how often that word occurs in his lyrics) so when it was time for the creation of their debut LP he wanted to try and make an album that was Detroit, at least what it meant to him. When discussing the album he said something that is definitely true: had the band failed to create a perfect (imperfectly perfect if you know what I mean) soundtrack for their motor city then they would have spent their career constantly reattempting to produce that perfect Detroit album and thus reducing their output to a tired collection of failed love letters. Basically they had one shot at the sound, without it they couldn't move on. But luckily for them, and us, they succeeded in every way imaginable and now that red, white and black sound of their birthplace has been immortalized on wax. The thing is that they didn't need an album to achieve this sound because they nailed it in one song.

It all starts with three (coincidence?) striking of the higher guitar strings and then from there Jack and Meg let loose with a ferocious attack on what the motor industry has done to their home. My knowledge of Detroit isn't exactly expansive but it's common knowledge that it is a once-glorious city left in ruins by Fords 'fantastic concept' of mass production. So here The White Stripes hit back. As a band founded on minimalism and childishness they are the perfect representation of the little guy and with this song they live out the dream of the underdog lashing out against the big bad oppressors. It's a song that reaches anthemic levels and manages to elevate itself beyond mere politics, not Jack's territory, and becomes a song about and for humanity. It's no wonder why Michael Moore, as a director who is concerned with examining the suffering induced by the 'big, bad, evil corporation', uses it as his introduction music .

The content of the song itself is really, in my opinion, complete perfection. It's here that the band stop working in spite of their limitations and start working because of it while Jack really comes into his own as a songwriter. The two chords that dominate most of the song and the drum stomp that can barely warrant the word 'beat' are the key ingredients to making the song what it is. The simplicity is so great that it strips the song of the feeling that this was ever consciously written by two people instead it sounds as if it occupies a timeless place in the universe's song book. It's not something to be used over and over again but here, this kind of musical restraint (restraint in terms of complexity there's no f***in' restraint in the playing) is not only complimentary but entirely necessary. Over a more conventional 1990s rock song the heavy-handed lyrics by Jack would kind of fall in on themselves. If anything more delicate than the guitar/drum stomp and shrill shrieking/chanting combo was used for these word then they would collapse under the songs own weight. And weighty lyrics they are. 

There are some real strong statements made throughout the song. When Jack says "these ideas make me wanna spit!" you feel that the spitting part was never intended as a threat, he got the spitting over and done with when he delivered the line. This incredibly strong and emotive language makes itself known all throughout. The song is overflowing with couplets damning everything and everyone involved with cars. It challenges the listener to make a difference (why don't you take the day off and try to repair) like a standard topical song but at the same time resigns itself to a unforgiving future (don't let 'em tell you the future's electric). Jack builds and builds, promoting the industry's actions from exploitative selfishness to a criminal and violent crime eventually climaxing in the no-holds-barred line "now my hands are turning red and I found at that my baby was dead!". Everything after this line seems just sad and mournful and it's here that, what I consider the most devastating line is dropped: "and creative minds are lazy, that's how the big three kills your baby". It's almost like the punch-line to a really sick joke except Jack sure isn't laughing. As he approaches the end of the song Jack rips off the metaphorical veil and reveals common sense has been the victim the entire time making sure no message is left unclear.

And my baby's my common sense
So don't feed me plain obsolescence

This is a truly special song. I think it's one of The White Stripes' finest moments and certainly the standout of this album. The band obviously saw something in it as it is the first and only single of the album. Live it also occupies a pretty strong spot with Jack revealing he had more words written for what already is a dense song. I was going to end this post on a message about this songs content but I think it speaks for itself instead I'll just say that as great as the previously discussed songs are it's here that I listen and think "thank god for this band".

Sunday, July 12, 2009

#5 Stop Breaking Down

For any recording artist who advertises themselves as having a strong relationship with the blues it is inevitable that they will, at some stage in their career record a Robert Johnson song. In describing his influences Jack once said that while he feels a closer connection to Son House and Blind Willie McTell he cannot deny that Robert Johnson is unchallenged as the most influential bluesman. I feel the exact same way, personally Blind Lemon Jefferson holds the greatest resonance to me but I came to this great family of musicians via Johnson and when someone declares him king of the delta blues I don't object. So it seems right that with the blues being one of the core ingredients of The White Stripes they should reserve the second song of their debut for a cover song by the premiere bluesman. 

Blues covers have become a well known motif amongst the band's discography now and I've come to think that for a man who likes to challenge and restrict himself so much these covers are the closest thing to indulgence for Jack. You can tell that it's very relaxing and, dare I say therapeutic. It's even refreshing to write about, after discussing songs that have all been landmarks of some kind to finally discuss the beauty of the performance. For that is part of The White Stripes origins, when you strip down all the visuals and gimmicks you are left with a bunch of white people playing the blues. Jack tried to hide this but in the end it proved unnecessary because you only need to look at this song to see that he could perform the blues wonderfully. 

The debut now holds a place as 'the Detroit album' and while songs like The Big Three Killed My Baby are the heaviest indictors of this, the Detroit sound is found all throughout the songs. We all know and love Jack's smooth and seductive slide sound produced with his Kay hollow body, famously found on songs like Death Letter and Seven Nation Army but back in 1999 the slide tones coming out of his dingy old Crestwood occupied a completely different territory. As Jack recklessly slides all over the frets he produces a tinny sound that almost emulates the mechanical soundscape of a Detroit car factory. I hope this isn't taken too literally but what I mean is that in this song he invents his own form of Detroit blues. If to Jack the blues represents truth then he truly represents it well here. The reckless honesty with which  he plays this song elevate it beyond imitation or something as pre-meditated as interpretation. He just plays and lets the song carry him from there.

People sometimes don't understand how others can think of Jack as doing the blues justice but really he does it better justice than anyone since the bluesman themselves. Bands like The Rolling Stones and Cream interpreted Johnson well but they were still Rock n Roll bands playing blues for a modern audience. Jack doesn't alter the song to suit himself nor does he alter himself to suit the song he simply lets the music flows creating the definitive Detroit blues (well the definitive 1990s Detroit blues at least). He is simply playing the truth.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

#4 Jimmy The Exploder

As I write this entry I’m currently on a flight between Sydney and London. It’s an economy flight so, while it’s better than the one screen per cabin, the entertainment options are reasonably limited. You have a selection of movies, television shows, games and most interestingly a selection of CDs to choose from. On an economy flight you’d expect that the music would have to “appeal to the masses” (that wasn’t meant to come out so elitist) so as I browsed the selections I secretly hoped I’d find The White Stripes so I could illustrate a point and lo and behold there was Icky Thump. The point I’m trying to make is that now the White Stripes are an accepted commercial force. They are no longer music’s best kept secret, appreciated by casual music fans all over the world. As I’m about to delve into the first album, which it’s easy to forget was a really small release, you’d expect me to comment on how, what once was an untamed band shifted it's sound to appeal to a broader audience. Well I’m not because if you played me Jimmy The Exploder back in 1999 my comments would’ve been “these guys will be big”.

In a recent review of Jack’s latest group, The Dead Weather, the writer described Jack as someone who played rock the way it should be played, but so rarely is. I couldn’t agree more with this. It really does frustrate me when someone says that Rock n Roll is uninteresting and that I should listen to the leyered and “cutting edge” sounds of more textured bands, which often to me sound pretentious and hollow. At the same time a majority of modern rock n roll is mindless and monotonous becoming more of an AC/DC tribute act than anything of vague artistic importance. It’s hard to advocate more with less when it’s rarely pulled off so that’s why I put my faith in Jack because he can do it better than anyone else.

Jimmy The Exploder is one of the best arguments for more with less and while it’s all but vanished from the bands set lists it’s holds an important place in their discography. With Let's Shake Hands you are taken back by the sheer raw power of it and are sucked into the bands ethos. In a way there’s almost an element of shock value in it, although I don’t want to discredit the song, and as an opening single it’s amazing but you couldn’t have a whole album of it so when The White Stripes open up their first album they need to prove they can do more. And they do prove it. There’s an opening catchy drum beat, a cool riff, surrealist lyrics, a wordless vocal shout along and a tempo change but most importantly it’s all done with two people. As Jack says why would you need a bass playing the root notes and a second guitar playing the chords when all music requires is three elements? That’s what the band is about, breaking down music to it’s core elements and, if after being broken down, a rich and full song can be performed than the principal works. In that way Jimmy The Exploder single handedly proves their philosophy to be an applicable one.

I could talk about the song in a deeper examination but it seems pointless. You could strain yourself talking about Jack's bizarre intentions with his lyrics (something about an angry monkey?) or mention the stylistic similarities between this riff and the one in Lafayette Blues but at the end of the day, as the albums brief opener, Jimmy The Exploder is a song that wants to get straight to the point, down and dirty. The album itself contains plenty of moments of both lyrical and musical depth but this is just an appetizer. You’ll want to dance along, sing along, air drum and most importantly you’ll want to keep listening.

 And so begins my exploration of The White Stripes, hopefully I will get these done quickly but in the mean time: comment! If you like what you're hearing, say something. Even better if you don't like what you're hearing, say something louder.

Monday, July 6, 2009

#3 Lafayette Blues

I realize that I could count the audience of this blog on my hands but the sole comment that I have received on the Look Me Over Closely post raised a good point. Basically it was noted that both posts fail to discuss the lyrical content in depth. Now I don't want this to be an indicator of things to come because Jack White is one of my favorite lyricists (hell, he's my favorite everything) but at this point his development as a songwriter is in it's infancy. Well actually it's a little bit more complicated but I'll get into that when talking about Sugar Never Tasted So Good. So far I've examined Let's Shake Hands and Look Me Over Closely, one being a cover and the other containing very simplistic and straightforward lyrics (this isn't a criticism it just offers little to talk about), so it's hard to delve into lyrical analysis that much at this point. Now this isn't just a piece of indulgent self-reflection but it's something I wanted to address when talking about Lafayette Blues. A song which in my opinion can be looked as either two steps forward or two steps back depending on your perspective. 

First let me talk about the two steps back. I'll be honest that I have not been looking forward to writing about this song, not because I dislike it, it's a fine song, but because lyrically it's... well let's not beat around the bush, the song is Jack White shouting out French street names in Detroit. I don't really think this does the song any kind of disservice but it raises question about Jack's confidence as a songwriter. That's the two steps back I'm talking about. If you look at White Stripes set lists from 1997 to 1999 they had plenty of songs that contained much more lyrical substance than Lafayette Blues so it's a bit perplexing why this odd little jam was released as their second single. If I was to speculate, and I will, I'd presume the song has two possible origins. One is that in the early days of rehearsal Jack & Meg stumbled upon a nifty little tune to play together. Not having lyrics at the time Jack just started listing all the French street names he knew and he like the sound so much he never rewrote actual lyrics. That's one possibility, another is that it was a musical piece of minimalist art with Detroit as it's stimulus. That sounds extraordinarily pretentious and unlikely but if you think of the bands appreciation for the Dutch minimalist movement this possible origin almost has some weight. What further supports the idea that there's more to this song than just a categorical listing of streets is that it is frequently introduced at White Stripes' concerts, something rarely granted to songs, however what it's about changes from time to time (for an interesting intro listen to the 4th Street Fair performance). In the end I could speculate forever about the cause behind this song but unless Jack White writes an annotated lyrics book I'll never know (unless there has been an interview mentioning this songs creation, if so correct me and shoot me a link). The thing is that Jack always said he worried about the state of song craftsmanship in the garage scene so releasing this song as the second single, particularly when backed by the beautiful Sugar Never Tasted So Good, can be seen as a bit counterintuitive. 

On the other hand the actual sound of the song is a good precursor for the general production of their first album. Let's Shake Hands basically captured a live performance and while Look Me Over Closely may have had a piano overdub but it was still pretty basic in it's engineering. Those recordings sound pretty untouchable to me but a definitive studio sound for The White Stripes needed to be found and with Lafayette Blues they found it, or at least partially uncovered it. The result is an absolutely ferocious recording that plays up Meg's drumming, turning it into a thumping energy that sounds like a million doors closing. It sounds like John Bonham caring about nothing but driving the song along to a steady but strong pulse. The guitar is likewise thickened out and if you've seen the cash-in documentary on The White Stripes Candy Colored Blues than you'd know that to give a weight to their performances they were heavily EQd. All this studio thickening may seem to go against the bands ethos but I think it was essential in establishing their records as something that were well crafted. Another interesting aspect of the song is Jack's voice. While he hasn't been ignoring his higher notes up to this point, it's now that he debuts his strong command of his voice which places his singing in a constantly high register. The way he sings the entire song an octave above the average male vocal line makes you think of a falsetto but it has too much substance for that and to be honest I'm not sure how he does it. This singing is now heard in about every second White Stripes song (although it's never quite achieved live), used most noticeably in Blue Orchid, but it's origins lie here. So aurally Lafayette Blues does break some ground but you have to wonder if it would sound better using any other song.

I still listen to Lafayette Blues and I still enjoy it but I hardly think many people can claim it as their favorite. It's very important in terms of the bands development but in this respect it's more of a stepping stone than a breakthrough. It can only really get better from here and while The White Stripes may never have surpassed their first single I think it's fair to say they surpassed the second.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

#2 Look Me Over Closely

Last post I said that Let's Shake Hands told you everything you needed to know about The White Stripes in under two minutes and while I'm not going to retract that statement it's probably more accurate to say it represents everything you need to know about The White Stripes' rules. Jack White has said numerous times that he craves order and discipline and that The White Stripes' creativity is the product of his own self-imposed restrictions. However when he says this you have to immediately wonder about songs with more lavish production such as The Nurse, Prickly Thorn or even singles like The Hardest Button To Button. The reason for this is that while Jack loves rules he also loves to break them and while some people argue that Jack betrayed himself with Get Behind Me Satan or Icky Thump, those people are forgetting he's been breaking those rules since the first 7 inch. If Let's Shake Hands represents the predominant White Stripes formula, two people bashing out a hard, fast and raw combination of the blues and punk, then Look Me Over Closely represents the flip side of that: the band breaking their own rules and creating something much more delicate. If you wanted to be really figurative, Look Me Over Closely represents the B-side of their career.

It's no secret that a lot of Jack White's songs are heavily sourced from the blues but interestingly enough when it comes to his guitar riffs he kind of ignores the traditional blues scale. He still places a heavy emphasis on the I, IV, V chord structure, the blues' bread and butter, but when it comes to his riffs he's unlikely to pop out with something resembling Smoke On The Water (I'm mentioning this song because it's the best example of the blues scale in rock 'n' roll riffage). Take a handful of riffs throughout the bands career (when I say riff I mean a concrete melody played on guitar so guitar parts such as Let's Shake Hands and The Hardest Button To Button aren't being included) Offend In Every Way, Truth Doesn't Make A Noise and I Think I Smell A Rat. They're all written around major and minor scales that don't often appear in rock 'n' roll. My knowledge of musicology is limited so I can't analyze this very well but Jack had no music degree so I doubt he sat in his upholstery shop thinking to himself: "wouldn't I be clever if I wrote my songs unconventionally scalic and then performed them in an understated garage rock sound". In fact I'd put good money on that not being the case. I don't quite know what name to give this style of music (and by now you must be wondering how this relates to Look Me Over Closely) but whatever you want to call it, this aspect of the White Stripes sound comes from his appreciation for tradition pop music and the first signs of this are in Look Me Over Closely. This love for artists like Patti Page or in this case Marlene Dietrich gives his songwriting an unconventional edge, one that he himself has acknowledged and while Look Me Over Closely is a cover the riff is his own and it's a good indicator of things to come.

The traditional pop influence is not limited to the guitar, on a regular basis Jack will sing in a sultry style almost trying to do his own version of the female singers of the 50s. However his voice is so different that it's hard to pick that up unless your looking for it but it lends a dramatic quality to his vocals. It becomes less noticeable  later on but it's an important development here because his voice needs power when he's not shrieking and this theatrical technique is the best way to achieve it. What's more commendable is that in conjunction with his never-dying loyalty to truth he manages to put all this drama into his voice without ever sounding hammy or dishonest, something incredibly difficult.

It may seem odd to think of Jack White as a 1940s songstress but his appreciation for a sense of class in his music is one of the things that have kept The White Stripes interesting after all these years. Discounting Conquest, today this influence is almost untraceable in his music but it's importance is not lost. If another garage basher had been the b-side than maybe every foray into musical richness by Jack would never have happened. Without this bizarre influence of the sultry sounds of traditional pop we might never of had the lush tracks on De Stjil or the marimba on Get Behind Me Satan. Hell, maybe even The Raconteurs would not exist. I'm probably being overdramatic here but after hearing Look Me Over Closely I feel like being dramatic!

#1 Let's Shake Hands

To even the most common White Stripes fan it's easy to get behind (no pun intended) Jack White when he says that the band will never surpass their first album. Sure there's that raw detroit sound which in theory can be off-putting to the casual listener but really the album boasts enough catchy songs and clever production for it to go down well. Take into consideration that a band, whose most polished efforts are considered an example of the rawer side of rock 'n' roll these days, debuted with something that makes their later work sound like it could've been produced by Phil Spector. Okay that's an exaggeration but basically what I'm trying to get across is that The White Stripes self-titled debut is far-removed in terms of shimmer from later albums. Almost all White Stripes fans have had the moment where upon discovering Elephant or White Blood Cells or maybe even De Stjil go to their local record store and pick up a copy of their new favorite band's debut and upon listening to it feel like they have plunged into the depths of the bands rough origins that the radio is to terrified to play. However this isn't the case. Because, while we think we have a high tolerance for low fidelity recordings because we adore the debut, when pressed most White Stripes fans can't quite get behind Jack White when he says nothing the band creates will surpass their debut single: the ferocious Let's Shake Hands.

From the second it starts, Let's Shake Hands let's your ears knows that they're in for an aural roller-coaster: exhilarating but will leave them feeling extremely unwell afterwards. The recording is the very definition of lo-fi and this isn't helped by the fact that the only way for your average person to get hold of it is to download a poor digital transfer (even the officially released transfer leaves a lot to be desired). Really the only way to listen to this song is on vinyl and that will really blow a hole in your wallet. Which is a crying shame because I almost can get behind Jack White when he says that Let's Shake Hands is their best song. The reason being that even though it would not be my choice for personal favorite it tells you all you need to know about the band in under two minutes.

As I've dedicated an entire blog to him it's easy to guess that Jack White is my favorite figure in music, at least modern music. So if you put on Let's Shake Hands I could provide a commentary through the entire song listing every point that makes the man what he is as they present themselves. First thing that's noticeable is the guitar which is so childishly simple but at the same time more complex than any shredder could ever hope they could be. While now everyone can appreciate Jack's virtuosity via Blue Veins or Ball & Biscuit, what initially drew me to him as a guitarist is that he never plays a chord the same way twice. If given a choice between listening to Joe Satriani solo forever or Jack White strum a G chord forever I would go with the latter because his strive for childish imperfection gives his playing a completely unique richness, while his natural ability as a guitarist never makes it undesirable to listen to. This is extremely noticeable all through Let's Shake Hands, if this song had been recorded during the elephant sessions it probably would have come out as one of the most disposable tracks on the album but in it's complete Detroite garage glory it stands out as a career highlight. The same thing is true of the vocals, while later years would see Jack's singing becoming more restrained and subtle for recordings (it retained it's power in concert), here he simply shrieks his way through it in a way that has become a source of comfort in his studio output from De Stjil to Conolers Of The Lonely. And of course while it's now hard to think too hard about the bread and butter of every White Stripes recording, here the snare/crash/kick stylings of Ms. Meg White are something to cherish.

The performance that is the White Stripes debut single sounds like the band are playing as if their first opportunity would be their last. They throw all their cards on the table and put everything into not even two minutes of music. Nowadays it seems preferable to listen to the better quality live recordings that exist but that's missing the point. While I personally believe that The White Stripes have recorded better songs since I can see where Jack is coming from because when you put on that first song you can tell that it was recorded with the mindset that it never would be surpassed, and to me that's how one should approach recording a song.