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.

8 comments:

  1. Well, I feel validated that the few TMR releases I've gotten a hold of so far are all on your list. What was the b-side to No Horse? I'm gonna have to hunt eBay for that one.

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  2. thank you for such an in-depth post. there is so much here to digest. i was just thinking today that no matter what i'm listening to that jack is playing on, why is it that jack comes through so loud and clear? he's such a powerful force. and i was also thinking that he is almost becoming oprah, in that everything he touches turns to gold. that's a little scary to me. i have only #5 and #6 on your list so i am way, way behind.

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  3. @Kali - The B-Side is a slowed down version of Jawbreaker with piano and is really the best part of the release. It was in Vault Package 3 so if you can track down an unopened copy on eBay than I'd recommend it.

    @combining two loves - I know it's overwhelming and frustrating to see all the releases you have to catch up on (my WS collection is next to nil) but if I can recommend one thing to consistently get from TMR, it's their live series which is consistently the best records they put out. They're also really cheap and better value than buying countless singles.

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  4. Jack might consider this blasphemous, but... there are a few TMR releases that I'd love to get with the named artist stripped out, so I could just have his background playing.

    Shhhh, don't tell him I said that.

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  5. Fantastic list, I love this blog!

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  6. As long as you don't mean Dex I won't tell him.

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  7. Oh, heck no. Jack and Dex sound so very perfect together! I was actually thinking of I Believe in Elvis Presley and Big River. While I get a kick out of BP's riffing, I'd love to hear Jack's slide on it's own. And I'm just not a huge fan of female vocalists, especially when there's whammying going on behind them.

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  8. Yeah I know what you mean, that's how I feel about Smoke Fairies but BP Fallon's 'singing' is so awesome.

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