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.