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.