Saturday, October 9, 2010

#19 St. James Infirmary Blues

It's hard to talk about such a monolithic song like St. James Infirmary Blues and focus just within the scope of a cover by a 21st century garage band on their first album. Now I of all people (remember what this blog is for god's sake) would not try and deny the impact and importance of Jack White and The White Stripes but when we're talking about a two and a half minute cover placed towards the end of their debut I can't say it immediately stands tall within the St. James Infirmary Blues canon. I should probably give a disclaimer that I think that St. James... is one of the greatest traditional folk songs in existence and considering the multitude of covers that are out there anyone who adds to the pool better make it bloody good. So is the White Stripes version bloody good? I will answer that but first I want to talk about the song itself for a bit.

A basic wikipedia search will tell you the song is essentially an American tune that's derived from a British one and has been covered A LOT. The importance of St. James Infirmary Blues arguably lies in it being a prime example of how the folk tradition brought a harder edge into blues music. Many of you would know how Son House lived a life of conflict as a result of being torn between the blues and the lord yet to a modern, somewhat desensitised, audience this often comes across as a bit odd. A lot of blues music was derived from spiritual songs and even it's edgy pain is derived from the toil of an honest days work, not exactly hedonistic or unchristian. The modern cultural image of the blues often centres around hollering in a cotton field but this unfairly ignores the run down and unsavoury juke joints where the genre really flourished. St. James Infirmary Blues has to be Exhibit A for this area of the blues. It's a hedonist's anthem... or eulogy depending on how you look at it. The Bristish original was concerned with deadly venereal diseases brought to the singer by various prostitutes and once it moved to America the story got a good dose of gambling and drinking to spice it up. (There is in fact a St. James Infirmary/Hotel in America contrary to popular belief that it was simply an imported term from a medieval English hospital but this only becomes really important when viewing Bob Dylan's quasi-adaption Blind Willie McTell). The song is all high drama, an epic ballad that stands tall with the likes of Black Jack Davey... except it's about drinking and sex. This contradiction is in many ways the essence of the blues. The invasion of a harsh modernity into an age old tradition is arguably what gives the song it's lasting affect and makes it a must-cover for any self-respecting blues fan.

I'll pull three examples to explore the different ways you can go with this song. If you have a look at Josh White's version you can see how it can be rendered as a mournful lament about a wasted life. Considering White would become friends with the president it's not that surprising how his recording (I cannot tell you which year the version I'm listening to is as he recorded the song on a number of occasions) comes across a lot more moralistic and sanitary on behalf of the singer. For one thing White frames the story through the bloodshot eyes of companion Joe McKennedy who is clearly damaged by the lifestyle he's been living and even when carving out the life of this companion he is vague on the detail, leaving much to the listeners imagination. But the singing is ghostly and sad, there is nothing to celebrate about the damage done here and when McKennedy orders another round of booze it pretty much sounds like he's writing his suicide note.

White a bit too nice for you? Try Blind Willie McTell's 'fuck you' of an adaption Dyin' Crapshooter Blues. While there isn't a baby on a table the narrator instead tells the story of gambler Jesse who calls a gang of crapshooters to his deathbed (he was shot by the cops of course) to organise his incredibly elaborate funeral process which essentially is designed to be one big middle figure to anyone who questioned the way he lived. He did it his way and he wants you to remember. Why the lack of any St. James Infirmary Blues? Because Jesse ain't got no regrets to turn into the blues, considering he is bizarrely described as being 'good hearted' but '[having] no soul'(?!) by McTell. When you couple these lyrics with McTell's incredibly unpredictable and wild method of playing you have a recipe for a seriously rebellious piece of music that makes punk look incredibly tame. The moral? There is no moral.

And then there's good old Cab Calloway who doesn't really care who's right or who's wrong as long as there's a good story to tell. In fact the story might not even be noticeable as you're distracted by his funky dancing. The protagonist of this story is probably sharing a grave somewhere with Minnie The Moocher. Calloway plays his story purely for drama and lays it on incredibly thick. If White (Josh not Jack) is the mourner and McTell the rebel then Calloway is the supreme raconteur and through these three interpretations of a single story we get a somehow complete picture of the blues (to a certain extent) even though Calloway is technically of the big band genre. The storytelling, the pain and the defiance. Good things do come in threes, don't they?

So when The White Stripes', raised on the blues in it's many forms, turn to cover the song came up how did they approach it. Well they kind of went for all three in a certain sense. One can only subjectively describe the type of emotions that their version conjures but I think that what they came across, both in the studio and live, was a nice middle ground. Jack's approach to the genre is a solution to the white-boy-blues problem, that pain invented for a song can be just as authentic as pain experienced. In this sense he has already been forced to approach the song from the storyteller angle yet his talent lies in his ability to completely immerse himself in the fiction of his songs to create a performance of intense involvement and honesty. He is the method actor of music in a way. So to a certain extent his rendition of the song is one of observation and narration but at the same time he places himself in the centre of the story experiencing all the relevant emotions. The minor key honky-tonk stomp on the album is somewhat resigned and regretful but at the same time a pang of defiance lays in the track. Compared to many of the more earth-shattering screams that pepper the album these vocals are relatively restrained but when the occasional rise in voice does occur you can here McTell's rebellion seep through. And the ante is raised even more during live performances when the album's arrangement is ditched for a stuttering and rythm-less screamathon where there's no particular slant brought. It's just pure emotion, Jack hollering the blues with the song telling him how he feels, not the other way around. In this way it's pure.

The White Stripes played St. James Infirmary Blues at their first ever concert and it continued to be played (sometimes with McTell's lyrics included) into their final tour in many different guises. Even if their version may not rank as one of the great performances of the song (and it probably doesn't) this was still something that the band needed to do. To take an age-old song and make it believable with Jack's ability to believe every word he sings is in many way's the essence of The White Stripes. It's the blues: a story, a eulogy and a rebellion. And this is the red, white and black version that had to be.

Friday, October 1, 2010

10 Third Man Releases You Really Should Own

When I started this blog Third Man Records had just shown signs that it was moving from a way to hold on to White Stripes music rights to a fully fledged indie label/Willy Wonka of vinyl. This was cool from a content angle but it provided a huge problem for me? What even constituted a Jack White song anymore? If you think 'produced by Jack White' immediately places it in the 'must have' category then you're going to have a whole room dedicated to the guy in about 10 years. It would be kind of easy to just write off the entire experiment as a vanity project and that you could still call yourself a bit of a completist as long as you stick to the stuff he actually plays on rather than the 'Whiteless crap' that you don't need. However there are two problems with this logic:

1. He plays on almost everything. This doesn't sound too convincing, after all Jimmy Page played on almost every second single of the 60s yet it doesn't mean the charts sounded like a Led Zeppelin album, but you have to remember Jack White is one of the most idiosyncratic musicians in the world... on every instrument he touches. Listen to the fairly standard pop song by Karen Elson, Pretty Babies and about five seconds in there is no disputing who's playing the drums and the quite distinct ghostly folk of Smoke Faries is instantly 'Whitified' by that patented Digitech Whammy solo moment. So no matter who's name is on the record sleeve there is almost always gonna be a reason for the Jack White fans to love it and buy it, and even on the off-chance that Jack decides he's gonna show restraint and keep his name solely as a production credit you still have the fact that...

2. Most of it's pretty good. Even when Jack's merely a promotional tool for some uncovered talent the record is usually worth hearing. Makes sense really, seeing as one of your favourite artists is unleashing his personal favourite artists on the world.

However you simply can't buy everything Third Man releases, particularly since their output will probably grow rather than diminish as the business is far from declining. Well you can buy everything but you can be forgiven if you don't. The problem seemed to be initially solved by the yearly singles comp but with a quite noticeable increase of LP releases, a complete collection is gonna be reserved for... well, completists. So I thought I'd single out some of the best releases that Third Man have given us over the years.

But first two little disclaimers:
1. Vault packages are included which seems unfair seeing as this list holds some pre-tense as a consumers guide but the thing is, you can actually find them on eBay for around the cost of a current platinum package. Some morons stupidly overestimated the flipping value in an exclusive record club that was completely un-exclusive.
2. Horehound, Sea Of Cowards and Under Great White Northern Lights are disqualified because they are wide releases by Jack White bands, meaning you don't need a recommendation to buy them. So is the Singles Comp., because for the purposes of this list it's cheating... but find it anyway.

So without further ado...

10. Live At Third Man Records - The Racontwoers
This record was pretty much doomed to obscurity from the start. It is titled with a cringe worthy pun and was built around a gimmicky auction and BBQ (which admittedly I am jealous I wish I was at). So what happens when you take away the biggest star in the Raconteurs and his awesome glasses-wearing companion? A lame record right? Actually, far from it. While the best case scenario I was expecting of this record was an enjoyable curiosity for the hardened Raconteurs fans it turned out to be much more. The band are tight and Brendan's on top form so you're never wondering why there's a distinct lack of shrill guitar solos or insane screaming. In fact it manages to find it's own groove so much that, owing in part to the amazingly awesome instrumental intro of The Switch & The Spur, it's not so much a few good renditions of Raconteurs' songs but a genuinely good record in it's own right.

9. No Horse (First Take) - The Dead Weather
One of the greatest thing about Third Man Records is beating the internet at it's own game. It seems quite ordinary for a band to release some demos from an upcoming album before it's release, but to do it on vinyl is another story. So these two tracks feature a great insight into how The Dead Weather work and the progression they make in the studio. However that's not enough to guarantee it entry on this list. The fact is these are two really good performances, showing the more seductive and bluesier side of The Dead Weather that often gets drowned out by their angrier presence on most performances.

8. Live At Third Man Records - Conan O'Brian
This will probably go down in rock history as one of the coolest novelty records of all times. The basic premise is that the whitest guy on earth (both figuratively and literally) releases a rockabilly album. Recipe for disaster? Probably, but somehow the whole thing just clicks firmly into place because as well as the remarkably tight band that Conan has assembled he turns out to be, in the words of Jack White, 'a rockabilly legend in the making'. But what really elevates it above the rest is it's self-depreciating humour. Conan constantly acknowledges how painfully middle-class he is and how silly the 'white boy sings the blues' idea is, and inadvertently makes one of the definitive records on the matter.

7. Fame # 9 - BP Fallon
Despite the ridiculously overhyped and actually quite flawed 'three sided record' this is a pretty masterly 7 inch. Fallon comes across as Rock N Rolls greatest historian and commentator, effortlessly musing on fame and the various anecdotes he's gathered over the years. Between his loveable british drawl and the hypnotic articulate dialogue I never get tired of this record despite the fact you know exactly what he's going to say. The essence of a good spoken word record I guess. But the real highlight of the single is the rip-roaring blues of I Believe In Elvis Presley which very simply and directly touches on the canonisation of rock music and seems to sum up a fifty year tradition in a few minutes.

6. The Ghost Who Walks - Karen Elson
If I had a time machine and went back to 2002 to tell the current White Stripes fans that Jack White would marry a supermodel and produce her album there would probably be a whole group of fans on a mission to castrate Jack to make sure this bleak future never came to pass. Even Karen herself recognised the stigma attached to the whole project but luckily for everyone Karen has more integrity than a lot of the fashion industry and this crossed into her music. While this album's existence, or at least it's stature, is probably due in part to Mr. White, the actual musical strength of the album is completely Elson's doing. An unpretentious but arresting pop/folk album that has Karen's beautiful voice combined with a unbeatably tight band, this record doesn't hit a wrong note.

5. The Wind Did Move - Dex Romweber Duo
It's Dex Romweber produced by Jack White. Think about that sentence for a minute. You ever heard of that Woody Guthrie record Bob Dylan produced? Well don't you at least wish it existed? The fact is, Dex is the single most obvious influence on Jack and the Stripes and so when they finally get in the same room it makes candy-cane history. The A-Side is just a great Romweber song, featuring one of the most intense breakdowns three people can conjure up and shows you where the middle point between Elvis Presley and Jack White is. But for the White fans, the B-Side is the real treat. In what has to be one of the most inspired duets of all time, Jack and Dex play off each other as the high pitched shrieks meet the crooning screams. It's like the most demented father and son duo of all time singing the blues.

4. Live At Third Man Records - Nobunny
Apparently Nobunny is the second coming of Jesus. Seriously, if you take a look at the discussion of him on the Little Room forum, he's treated like a deity that will single handedly save rock n roll. Is this record that good? Probably not but it's still damn exciting. While I find what I've heard of Nobunny's studio work kind of run of the mill garage punk pop the live LP has more adrenaline than a lot of people can handle. Even without the visual of the cross dressing bunny you still experience the excitement of what sounds like a four year old who drank too much red cordial... laced with cocaine. There a some beautifully shambolic moments including two consecutive songs that are abandoned less than midway through, Nobunny breaking his mic and constant references to the drug charges that almost kept the show from happening. But even with all the bizarre shit that surrounds this record it never distracts from the sheer ferocity of the music, which still dominates the record.

3. Live At Third Man Records - The Dex Romweber Duo
You ever heard of that live Beatles album that Oasis produced... you know what, I prefer the Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan analogy. Although the fact is, while the single was a convergence of two great modern bluesman, this is just Dex being Dex... in amazing analog quality. A Flat Duo Jets concert is what largely inspired Jack to pick up a guitar in the first place and by listening to this record you can see why. It's a bit more understated than the early FDJ days, but the passion is still there. Dex and his Sister, who is the inverse of Meg in terms of technical proficiency, tear through every song flawlessly and make one of the most killer live records ever committed to wax.

2. Under Great White Northern Lights B-Shows - The White Stripes
The Under Great White Northern Lights project encompassed multiple releases across various mediums and the ironic thing is that the wide releases were vastly inferior to the box set DVD (Under Nova Scotian Lights) and the fan club exclusive (this record). While the quality is absolutely abysmal, the performances, and the whole premise, are legendary. These odd little B-Shows define the character of the incredible Canadian tour in a way that the official soundtrack never could. There are some classic bangers that contain nothing special other than a particular increase of energy but there is also a whole side of Stripes standards and covers re-imagined with the weirdest synth I have ever heard. It's rough, raw and uncompromising but it's also one of the greatest White Stripes releases ever.

1. Sea Of Coward Live At Third Man Records - The Dead Weather
Forget Horehound. Completely forget Sea Of Cowards. THIS is the definitive Dead Weather album. A band that exist thanks to Third Man Records, playing in the Third Man Records venue and released through a special Third Man Records endeavour, could this list be topped more perfectly? There was definitely no drop in songwriting with Sea Of Cowards (perhaps an improvement) but it lacked the atmosphere and immediacy of Horehound and was equally hindered by the pretty crap mastering on both CD and Vinyl. In fact probably the biggest criticism of both Dead Weather albums by both fans and critics was that they simply can't compare to the energy they share on stage. This album solves all those problems and delivers 100%. With the possible exception of Gasoline (and even then I'm not sure) ever studio cut is surpassed as the band tear into their latest album with the most extreme intensity they can muster, and with the Dead Weather that's a shit load of intensity. To add to this it has got to be one of the nicest sounding records I have ever heard, recorded to tape and cut directly to vinyl. It simply can't get any better than this.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#18 Slicker Drips

You can never really have too much of a good thing, or can you? I’ve spoken at length about the adrenaline soaked bashers of mindless fury and I’m running out of adjectives. I’ve claimed each one takes it a step up from the last and I’ll do the same again because Slicker Drips really does take the cake for the most vicious assault of noise. Time signatures aren’t constant, verses and choruses aren’t present and if that guitar breakdown fits into any type of conventional classification of a solo then I will eat my own hat (or that cool new one Jack has been seen in a lot lately). So is it good? Oh yeah, guess you can’t have too much of a good thing.

For all the strength of the album cut, Slicker Drips can be considered one of the ‘lost songs’ that never really made it into future sets. From what we know it was played twice before the album’s release and a mere five times after, never making it beyond 2001. It wouldn’t be completely outlandish to suggest Jack thought the song didn’t have the chops to sit along side later work and while I do like this song I think it’s a fair judgment. The elements that drive the album cut can be seamlessly worked into any live song and the meager running time doesn’t exactly offer much to play on in concert. But the song still holds it’s own on the LP. Ben Blackwell one described his love for the debut LP because after bootlegging these songs for so long he could finally here the words accompanying the music he was so familiar with. Finally the ‘Dylanesque poetry’, in his words, was revealed… Really Ben? Frankly I can’t hear a damn here, and it’s true of a lot of the album. Maybe Jack shrieked his words away out of shyness, masking his cleverness to the purist Detroit garage snobs or maybe he merely didn’t have confidence in them. Most probably it was just his natural inclination to perform them this way because there’s a certain natural balance that is restored with these performances. The less you can hear the lyrics the more impassioned the performance is, so it works either way. But really you don’t have to hear the lyrics to Slicker Drips to get the gist of what he means:

And I'm in the middle
With nobody to love
Nobody to love
Nobody to love
Nobody to love

I had to look up the lyrics for the first time when writing this entry and honestly my opinion has not changed one bit in regards to this song. If you tried to decipher the song phonetically you could easily come up with ‘nobody to hold’, ‘nobody to hug’ or ‘nobody to rob’. Aurally they all make sense but you instinctively know it’s something close to the first two (or, you know, the actual lyric) because anyone wailing that loudly along to a wall of buzzing guitars (well guitar, but you almost wouldn’t know) must be seriously love sick. And that’s the point that I’ve been aimlessly drifting towards here: performance, not melody or lyrics, can often be the most expressive aspect of the song, and this is an idea that often is the key force behind Jack White’s appeal. So while Jack definitely has a way with words let’s just be honest and say that sometimes they don’t really need to be audible. The sentiment is in the groove (or in the MP3 file if you wish) so stop reading this and play the fucking song. Loud.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Live Picks #2: The Hardest Button To Button 2007/07/29

Here’s one for the ages. In 2007 things were supposedly rosy, Icky Thump supposedly came from a happy place and The White Stripes was nothing short of a complete triumph. But as we know a certain amount of fatigue set in as it all became too much for poor Meg and the tour was cut prematurely short. However I think the warning signs were beginning to show towards the end of the tour anyway. The set lists started to become a lot less predictable, covers were more sporadic and even Seven Nation Army wasn’t an assured thing. That ol’ Sea Of Cowards now firmly controlled everything and that happy place Jack was coming from seemed to be slipping away as he became the lone soldier against mediocre modernity. Third Man Records was not too far off and the candy colored chapter of Jack’s life, at least for now, was about to close. Excuse the hefty write up but I think it’s necessary to set the scene for the end of the White Stripes as they performed the last shows of their American tour. If 2005 was catharsis then the end of 2007 was a fucking revolt.

So the House Of Blues show (the second last I believed) shows Jack and Meg in the most rebellious of moods, playing some truly obscure songs and rarely staying on one track for it’s full duration. But the clincher of the concert came towards the end when he decided to rewrite one of their biggest hits on the spot and make a momentary anthem against the dullness of celebrity. It starts off as a slowed down blues number with some of the most flawless vocals the man has provided while Meg, in a way she could only do, slowly catches on to his train of thought. The petulant child of the original lyrics has grown up into a man disgusted with what he sees before him and Jack delivers his rant which is met by a decidedly supportive series of cries and boos by the crowd.

The new verse is as follows:
Oh, that’s how it goes
In the name of her/hurt
Like (?) no one knows
Just what they’re supposed to do
Only what there told to do
Britney Speers
Jessica Simpson
Ashley Simpson
Paris Hilton
Lindsey Lohan
Someone else
Oh yeah, just what your told to do
Wear gym pants and shirt and suit to the zoo
Now we know this
And I can show you this
Now we know this
Just like to make a point (?)
Catch up, catch up
Wake up, wake up
Wake up, before you throw up!

Wise words, from a wise man…

If that was a bit of a wank forgive me, but please download this fucking thing, it’s great and once your convinced download the entire show, because they’re at this caliber all night.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Live Picks #1: Ball & Biscuit 2005/10/02

I've started doing these on The Little Room but I thought I may as well post them here as well. Every week (remember the last time I said that) I'll post one of my favourite live tracks by one of Jacky White's bands.

My first pick is from my favourite year of touring, 2005. The main focus of Jack's guitar playing in It Might Get Loud was his belief that it's all about the struggle and no other performance illustrates this more beautifully then this version of Ball & Biscuit. Previously in the concert Jack had attempted the song but had abandoned it for My Doorbell however after endlessly tuning it (unfortunately left out of the mp3) he kicks into the song in full blast. Jack's guitar playing is like him taming a beast and that's true of most of his songs but this is the only one I've heard where it sounds like the beast might actually win. The guitar constantly fights back, clanging and clanking, going out of tune and cutting out. But it's Jack persistence that makes it so inspired and after dragging his inglorious piece of plastic back under his control he strums the shit out of it until the songs end, emerging victorious at last.

If you like this (and frankly you must) then I'd definitely recommend downloading this entire show which is in the same messily inspired vein and in beautiful satellite radio sound quality.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: Third Man Records Singles Collection 2009

In many years from now when someone asks me about my record collection and what records I truly love I’ll choose Jack White. But I’ll skip past White Blood Cells and Elephant, give Broken Boy Soldiers a miss and leave Horehound behind, instead I’ll pick out Third Man Records Single Releases 2009 because it is a divine celebration of music. The concept is beautiful, truly moving, different artists of a more then just a diverse nature come together, centralised around this one nurturing institution in Nashville. It’s not about personal tastes, would I buy a Transit record? Hell no but how can you ignore people singing with such conviction about the NTA. It’s not about virtuosity because Mildred can’t sing or play to save her life. It’s not even about originality seeing as Fly Farm Blues could’ve been written 100 years ago. What this LP represents is community, a fertile collection of musical pursuits and celebrations. It wasn’t just the dawn that was glorious after all.

The Dead Weather, who dominate the collection, perfectly encapsulate this ethos. They are band that really shouldn’t exist from a commercial or careerist perspective, yet they do because they feel they have to, the music drives them above anything else. Listen to the unprecedented inventiveness of I Cut Like A Buffalo, the unrestrained passion of You Just Can’t Win or the amazing interactions of talented musicians on A Child Of A Few Hours. You can’t ignore them but their trademark dirty blues is exclusive to them on the album and a wide range of genres are explored.

The talent is in no short supply as seen in the infectious Rachelle Garniez single. She didn’t need a b-side because her vocal range on one song is enough to fill an LP, a vocal range that elevates a lovely pop song into something more special. Similarly Dan Sartain’s irrepressible groove at first seems standard but there’s something ‘off’ about it that you can’t quite put your finger on and it makes the song all the more endearing.

The weirdness isn’t always subtle though. I doubt A Glorious Dawn’s quirkiness will ever be surpassed by another Third Man Release yet the sentiment seems sincere and it’s a perfect snapshot of the esoteric approach Carl Sagan took to our existence, making us observe with child-like wonder. Of course Mildred & The Mice are just silly. There is absolutely no great musicianship on display nor is there any song writing chops, instead Mildred just shouts her way through the record putting forth so much bravado that you can’t really do anything but like her. But Transit take the cake for the biggest, for lack of a better term, ‘what the fuck?’ moment. They appeal to mainstream tastes more then any other band on the album but the repeated shouts of ‘NTA’ really catch you off guard.

Of course Jack gets to produce his idols creating a flawless 45 with proto-Jack himself Dex Romweber. It’s the best single of the lot and you can’t help but squirm at the synergy as Jack and Dex trade howls on Last Kind Word Blues, like the most demented father and son duo imaginable. But most importantly it proves Jack’s tireless thesis that the blues will never get old. An even greater blast from the past is the triumphant return of Wanda Jackson who really get’s the entire Third Man treatment, complete with squealing solos and Memphis horns. Her vitriolic howl on You Know I’m No Good makes Amy Winehouse seem tame.

And most importantly it does the work of any self-respecting indie label, launching some younger bands. They are the shakiest for sure but they still show some great potential. The ethereal harmony of the Smoke Fairies is not everyone’s cup of tea yet they manage to convey an amazing amount of mystique for such a new act. The Black Belles certainly don’t break any new boundaries yet you cannot deny the hooks they possess. Indeed if What Can I Do? had been 40 years ago it would be the next Dead Weather B-side.

In the end it’s BP Fallon who says it best. His simple blues I Believe In Elvis Presley serves as both a celebration and a warning about placing our musical heroes in a divine canon. I’ll choose to ignore his warning: I Believe In Jack White and I Believe In Third Man Records.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Under Great White Northern Lights OST

Unfortunately we must take a further break from our regular scheduling as I am swept up in Under Great White Northern Lights mania. The question that this album poses to all White Stripes fans is, how can a single disc be a definitive statement about the band as a live act. As great as their studio output is, The Stripes’ most notorious outlet is their stage show and as a band that boasts a customized experience for each show trying to get it all across in 16 tracks is surely impossible. Luckily UGWNL knows this and doesn’t attempt to emulate an entire concert merely throwing together tour highlights into one great compilation album. The effect is far from jarring and its honest intentions are what make the album so endearing.

The album unsurprisingly starts with the bagpipes intro of Let’s Shake Hands that opened their tenth anniversary show. It might be because I’ve heard this track, as in this specific performance, many times already but this is probably the least revelatory moment of the track list. It’s a great song and a strong rendition but it feels like catch up for casual fans who are unaware of exactly what the White Stripes do as a live act. The excitement really starts with Black Math, where we are forced to ask ourselves the usual question: does this guy really abstain from drugs? After the familiar bashes and fret-burning solo we’re treated with a rearranged ending with stop-start styling.

After it’s more then generous treatment in 2005/2006 we are not treated to much Get Behind Me Satan, which is a shame but the next two tracks certainly make up for it. Little Ghost wasn’t the most likely choice but it contrasts well with the pounding Black Math. If you have seen the film, the intimacy of this song is abundantly clear with Jack and Meg dueting eye to eye for the whole song. Blue Orchid is surprisingly strong, it’s falsetto vocals and rich guitar tones often posing problems live. This performance is a cut above the rest with a wailing guitar crescendo towards the end that climaxes in the signature riff. Considering how rigid the original was it’s interesting to see how it benefits from being treated as a loose structure to improvise with.

Rescued from possible obscurity, The Union Forever wins the award for most gallant underdog choice. An amazing song in any incarnation, Jack fully immerses himself in the more melodramatic moments and faithfully uses the loud-soft dynamics that the song relies on. The eerie organ finish transposes Orson Welles to a 50s B movie with magnificent results. Stranger still is the 3 minute Ball & Biscuit, with the organ based refrain seemingly there just to justify the title. After that it’s brilliant blues medleys and classic squeal solos rendering the song virtually unrecognizable.

Current single Icky Thump receives a strong treatment but it’s a mystery why the first verse is cut out. Like the rest of the album the strength here is to suspend faithfulness to the recording, extending verses to engage the audience and play around with dynamics. Similarly the sing along rendition of I’m Slowly Turning Into You unexpectedly turns into a jazzy swing by the end later to be brought back to a multi-octave crescendo (for both guitar and voice). The album being toured is far from being bombarded upon us but it is certainly well represented and proof that the Stripes are running out of steam on stage or in the studio.

By contrast, live staple Jolene sounds equally strong. You really have to question how necessary the damn thing is, I mean not only was it on Blackpool Lights but it was also a single that received generous airplay. However once you listen to it you remember the genius of the performance, the melodrama is crippling and no other song really gets a more committed vocal performance out of Jack.

300 MPH etc. is the second contender for best underdog song pick. It’s one of the best tracks off Icky Thump and live it’s an entirely different, yet equally good, beast. The guitar subtleties of the album version have been erased and instead Jack relies on weaving his Dylanesque poetry to the audience climaxing in the harrowing screams of the title. This rendition isn’t exactly as grand as the Tenth Anniversary one but I’d rather have both then one. Continuing on in the acoustic vein We’re Going To Be Friends, currently the last song performed by the band, is unconditionally loveable. Its simplicity can never be reworked and as the crowd claps along to the story of childhood love. A tear may come to your eye.

As the greatest hits wear on we get the most redundant moment of the album, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the performance and it doesn’t disrupt the track list but as it was recorded live, why bother? The most surprising moment is the fun Scottish sing along of Prickly Thorn which unpredictably tops the album version and is real toe tapping nirvana.

If you’re a fan of the bluesy/jazzy slowed down Fell In Love With A Girl then you’ll relish in this intense slow burn of their break out hit. Joss Stone gets beaten in her own game here and never has the spontaneous edge of The White Stripes sounded more genuine, even if there is one jarring hiccup. Similarly When I Hear My Name is reworked to the point of unrecognition, which is good as the very standard blues is so simple it desperately asks for it.

Probably the most shocking aspect of the album is that Seven Nation Army sounds fresh again. What!? That’s right you, heard correctly. Even the most cynical White Stripes fan will find themselves dun-dun-dunning there way through this one. They clearly know the fervour this song creates and they indulge in it to tremendous effect. Stopping to build up suspense and, most excitingly, letting the crowd do the guitar riff as Jack rewrites his greatest hit.

Don’t get Under Great White Northern Lights and then feel all other live material, both released and bootlegged, is superfluous because that is far from the case. What this album does is it gives your record shelf an ambassador from the most important platform of the White Stripes. It was well worth the wait.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Under Great White Northern Lights

Occasionally it’s hard being stuck in the past. Occasionally furiously typing away about the first album of the White Stripes is hard when there are exciting new projects going on outside. Occasionally one must write ones thoughts while they are still fresh in one’s mind. So I interrupt my usual schedule to bring you my review of the new and much-anticipated White Stripes movie Under Great White Northern Lights. These reviews will be a regular thing and accompany any major Jack White new release. So about the film….

The film opens with a cameraman being dispatched amongst a group of befuddled and excited fans looking for the venue of the Stripes oncoming secret show. One slightly anxious fan innocently asks the cameraman to point him in the direction of the show. Later on in the film we see a man outside a show wearing a horse mask that covers his entire head. His justification: “there was a horse thing with their latest album and it was pretty cool” (I’m paraphrasing that quote as I remember it). This immediately makes clear what the tour was about, bringing candy cane frenzy to Canada. All of Canada.

When you watch the secret shows you can literally feel the White Stripes, both expanding and making a deeper connection with their fan base. The first one of the tour and the first one we are shown, Jack and Meg walk, with little fanfare, to the centre of LePage park with screams of ‘welcome to Whitehorse’ coming from every corner. Jack picks up his acoustic guitar and they start playing a hushed, tender rendition of Black Jack Davey. As Jack tells this magical gypsy story to the crowd he assembled in less than an hour you realise the magic of what you are witnessing and the fact that it is caught on film feels almost unreal. But this gig was probably the most orthodox secret show of the film with scenes jumping from Jack bowling an eight while playing Let’s Build A Home, not dropping a note, to him and Meg leading an overexcited crowd through a sing-a-long of Wheels On The Bus, quickly cutting to a youth centre where a child, of no more than about 6 or 7, is given the mic by Jack to do his version. Suddenly Canada has been converted to Stripes country, it is there’s, and not in some glorified egotistical rock star indulgence but in an actual desire to give the country something special, directly to the people.

But the film doesn’t just connect to Canada through the ordinary people. Maybe I’m underestimating the world recognition of The White Stripes but isn’t it a little bit odd for the mayor of Yellowknife chauffeuring the band around town? Whatever your opinion it’s a fascinating, if bizarre, act of Rock N Roll diplomacy with Jack, Meg and Mr. Mayor conversing about the town’s history and the bands bowling adventures (I kid you not). Even more amazing is the meeting between the Stripes and a group of Inuit elders who cryptically explain to Jack the significance of the raven. They then exchange songs with Jack giving a song from ’way down south’ seeing as they are ‘way up North’, a lovely version of Lord Send Me An Angel. While the nature of the meeting might distract you from the actual performance, it’s truly fantastic because you realise he is really trying to impress them, and he seems to succeed. In exchange they give him an accordion sea chantey (I kind of got culturally lost here) accompanied by some pretty awesome Inuit square dancing. Maybe this is how diplomatic relations between the US and Canada should be conducted?

But while their love letter to Canada is the setting for the film, the heart of the film is the relationship between Jack and Meg themselves. As much as we go on about personal lives not meaning anything to us, we were all dying to see a fly on the wall view of the two and we get what we wanted but the mystique is preserved. The dynamic is predominantly playful and it’s pretty clear how the two got away with the brother/sister thing. At one point Jack jokingly yells at Meg for not talking quietly, while in another he digs is own grave when, while humorously getting Meg to explain he does not purposely steal the limelight in interviews, he inadvertently talks over the top of her. But at the end of the day the bond between the two of them is intangible, they seem to inhabit each other, which may account for their near telepathic communication on stage. The same way we could only watch in on The Beatles in Let It Be as their Liverpudlian humour went over our heads, we can only try and understand the connection between these two people. The only time we get close is the emotional final moment where as Jack’s performance of White Moon brings Meg to tears he simply holds her and comforts her. Know words for the cameras. Just the two of them together.

If Canada is the setting and Jack and Meg are the drama then the action is the concerts. If you thought The White Stripes could no longer surprise you as a live band you were fucking wrong. These performances will make you fall in love with the band all over again because they are truly amazing. In Black Math Jack immediately renders Blackpool obsolete as he stops and starts, shrieks and furiously runs his fingers over the fret board. The drama of Jolene, which I never felt I needed to hear again, gets turned up to 11 as Jack agonizes each syllable, painfully spitting out each word. I’m Slowly Turning Into You is rewritten on stage transformed from a poppy sing along into a Jazzy rhythm, slowly building from the haunted whisper of the title to startling screams by the end. Probably the true testament to the films brilliance is that Seven Nation Army is actually exciting again. As the crowd chant along to that ever-so-familiar riff you can hear Jack tying the ribbon on the bands first ten years.

There’s no other way to put it, if you are reading this blog you MUST see this film if you can. The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs will completely disappear from your conscious and two words and three colours will sum up your entire life at that moment.



Wednesday, February 24, 2010

# 17 Little People

You know it’s funny how wham-bam-thankyou-mam this whole album is. If you wanted to unjustly describe it you could just say it’s a lot of crashing and yelling and then it’s over before you really know what has happened. That seems like an unfair and negative assessment but I find it part of the appeal. It’s loud, quick and unpretentious, yet the adrenaline rush it provides justifies it as a classic. So when I come to these two ‘filler’ tracks it’s a good time to talk about the albums strength as a whole. Because as the old saying goes, an album is only as strong as it’s filler.

If Little People or Sicker Drips are your favourite songs then don’t get too upset I don’t use filler as a criticism, in fact Take Take Take is a perfect example of ‘filler’ yet it is probably my favourite song of that album. To me filler songs are the ones that have no ambitions to dominate the track-listing, to simply fit nicely into the context of the album, not jumping out at you. This is why so-called filler is such a good measure of an album because they feel like a product of the album instead of a building block. If you feel these songs aren’t filler, fair enough but neither of them are performed live with any regularity and are rarely discussed amongst fans.

So putting aside how modest the intentions of this song are, I genuinely love Little People. It’s positively bizarre with spooky gothic verses that are almost monotonous in nature, interrupted only by big and very unsubtle bursts of noise. And what the hell is with that theremin/slide guitar in the background? It’s just a very unconventional song, one that would have thoroughly scared off any major labels and enticed any indie music geeks for it’s novelty moments.

Lyrically it’s equally unorthodox. I’m not going to attempt to analyze these words because they are about as non-sequiter as you can be but there is a much more interesting discussion this song brings up. All White Stripes nerds will know that every album by the two has a song with little in it’s title. Uncovering some psychological reasoning behind this is far from hard. The minimalistic style that goes a long with everything the band does is also complemented by the DIY, community-based nature of Jack’s business mind. So as far as the little theme (along with home) it’s easy to see Jack has a love for the smaller things in life, not to mention a disdain for large conglomerate-centric thinking, from the Big Three to the death of the independent record store. Another little side note is that as well as introducing the little motif this song also features a mention of red shoes and Jack’s only song writing contribution to Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose was a composition called Little Red Shoes. Interesting, huh?

Wrapping up, what can one say about this song? The answer: not much. If this entry has seemed half-assed I apologize but I think this song is probably not designed to be dissected gratuitously. It’s the kind of song that makes my blog hard and my life fun. My suggestion is you go put on Little People, don’t think about anything and just enjoy yourself because, as little thought as it, I sure did.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

#16 One More Cup Of Coffee

In Mojo’s top 100 Bob Dylan Songs article Rennie Sparks makes an interesting point about One More Cup Of Coffee.

It’s a cliché festival of psychic knife-throwing gypsy outlaws and it sounds corny on paper, but when you hear it, it works on this very natural dream-like level, like magical realism. It’s almost like a little opera about coffee! He’s singing these soaring harmonies with Emmylou Harris and they make this little line about one more cup of coffee seem like the most romantic statement you could make to a lover.

This is a really good point to bring up. One of the things that is so striking about Bob Dylan’s lyrics is how effortlessly he combines the fantastical aspects of the song with the more banal ones. He weaves this incredibly awe-inspiring and larger then life tale of sorrow yet concludes each verse with such a seemingly modest refrain. Of course it’s easy to ignore this when you’re distracted by the harmonies and gypsy violin, which is precisely how the original recording works. It points out how lyrics act as a neutral ground when it comes to popular song and the performance is what takes it in a particular direction. It’s quite clear where Bob Dylan took it but The White Stripes went in a completely different direction.

To do a successful cover version of a good song, most of the time it is important to subvert the original recording. To do a successful Bob Dylan cover it is always important to subvert the original. Without this you’re left with a dry track of someone believing that, by simply doing the same thing in a sweeter voice, you improve on the original. Jimi Hendrix knew this, at least on a sub-conscious level, when he turned All Along The Watchtower, a softly-spoken country ballad of prophetic reflection, into an urgent apocalyptic rocker that became the defining statement of psychadelia. Similarly The Dead Weather turned Dylan’s New Pony, a sexy blues about the torture of temptation, which is frequently criticized for chauvinistic qualities, into a raging rock song fronted by a woman who seemed to be torturing the men who provided the painful cries of ‘how much longer’. But more on that in another post. The thing to know is that if you want to do Dylan well, you usually have to do him differently, because I agree when people say nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.

What’s beautiful about the Stripes’ reworking of Coffee is how tired and defeated it sounds. While Dylan’s recoding seemed to focus on the image of the valley below, this version seems to emulate the feeling of that last cup of coffee. When you hear it you can almost picture Jack sitting at the counter of a Detroit diner at midnight asking the waitress for that one final pour. It’s haunting and mysterious but at the same time so unsensational. The cries of pain that Jack delivers each line with are as much as he’s ever put into a track but at the same time he sounds like he has so little left, a sad purposelessness coming through on the song. The guitar sounds similarly fragile, it’s rough clang matching each crack of the voice and the ghostly organ.

Maybe that’s simply my reaction and a far from objective analysis but it does prove something. With One More Cup Of Coffee, the White Stripes almost give a lesson in cover songs, how they can conjure up and convey things never present in the original, to dramatic effect. And when you apply this formula to Dylan, it’s a recipe for brilliance.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Statement From Every Jack White Song & It's Management




Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Bit Of Shameless Self-Promotion

I realise this blog is running dramatically behind schedule, if there is one, but I assure you that Once More Cup Of Coffee is just round the corner. I mean talking about Bob Dylan AND Jack White is the verbal equivalent of sex for me.

In the mean time I thought I'd give my fledging two-piece blues/rock band (odd idea huh) a bit of exposure. It was recorded in my new, and in development, home studio which was inspired by a little known label with a yellow and black color scheme.

The first song is the only one that is really worth listening to and the only one recorded post-2007. So enjoy it and please leave some feedback. I will return to writing about the divine combination of Jack & Bob. Mmmmmmmmm.......