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