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.