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.

1 comment:

  1. This is the song for me that most completely sums up the White Stripe's mentality, at least in their early years.

    Obviously Jack was interested in making art from very simple forms - as he says in the liner notes to De Stijl (I guess that was why was into the De Stijl movement anyway).

    When I Hear My Name is like a song made from nothing, the absolute basics of what a song can be within rock / blues: I-IV-V harmony with just five power chords on each.

    Also I can hear the influence of "Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker in its rhythm and structure.

    So yes, I agree that the live versions are better, but then I think that's true of 75% of their songs.

    But this still strikes me as an important White Stripes song, because it encapsulates what they were bringing (back) to music when they broke through.

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