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.