Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jack White At The Hordern Pavilion 26/07/2012 Review

When I saw the Dead Weather in 2010 I was going to post a review but eventually decided against it because there was so little to say. It was amazing and there was very little to add to that and the incandescent electricity made any attempt to deconstruct it sort of pointless. But when Jack came round to our shores again this year I felt there was more to analyse and more to critique. You see I've had misgivings about Jack White's solo tour and it has nothing to do with the idea of him going solo, an allegiance to his previous bands, disenfranchisement with his new mainstream appeal or misplaced nostalgia. Something just didn't sit right about the tour from what I had heard and seen so far. I'd clumsily tried to explain it before and couldn't really articulate it but I think I finally figured out why I was so sceptical. When Jack was in the White Stripes he could never fully break free and just be a rock god, he was certainly captivating but the limitations of the band meant he had to be focused the whole time and this struggle (the key word to Jack's appeal) was what made it so compelling. When he was in The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather he made it clear he was not the frontman but the fact he managed to captivate your attention from the background while someone else was singing enhanced his mystique and made him seem even more appealing. Now that he's got his own band(s) that follow him completely he can truly be centre stage (literally) and doesn't have to flesh out the songs all by himself. It's still something to behold but that lack of struggle still made me less enthused than previous endeavours. I should probably clarify that these thoughts are independent of what I think of Blunderbuss which is a great album in it's own right. So this was my frame of mind before I went to the show and I now want to try and get across my feelings of the entire show. Buckle in, this is gonna be a long one.

First of all, the Hordern Pavilion is a soulless warehouse that seems to exacerbate every standard irritation to be found at a gig. I've been in heavier mosh pits, been in hotter venues, waited for a longer time but every time I go to the Hordern these little annoyances are amplified. On the bright side the sound is great but would it kill them to raise the floor. I did, however, see The White Stripes here back in 2006 so the nostalgia factor was kind of nice.

Anyway onto the show.

The crowd surged forward as The Buzzards came out and warmed up the stage as we all waited for Jack to make an appearance. After a minute of the boys bashing the shit out of every instrument they had Jack walked on liked he'd walked straight out the promo poster with a sky blue tele swung across his shoulder as if he was carrying a Blunderbuss. He launched into Black Math which was for my money a good choice, not too much of a hit but still a throwback to the golden age of The White Stripes. The new arrangement really does kick a lot of ass and while the stop start approach is a bit weird for an opening number its heartening to see no old tune treated as sacred and the crowd had no problem singing a long to the new tempo. When the big muff is slammed on and the 'ah ah ah ah ah's come in it is twice as slow and three times as heavy. I'd heard this arrangement before but it's a killer take on a nine year old song.

The band quickly followed this up with Missing Pieces which sounds much more exciting than it does on Blunderbuss. I would have gotten a bit annoyed by the surging crowd at this stage if it wasn't for the fact they sang along to every word of a new song that wasn't even a single. As far as I'm concerned, if you know every word of Missing Pieces you deserve to be up front. This was followed by Freedom At 21 which was another Blunderbuss crowd pleaser. The Buzzards version turns it into way more of a hard rock stomper and the crowd responded appropriately, once again singing along to every word. There was no denying that these were great songs played well but at this point in the concert its all so frantic in the pit that I wasn't exactly capturing the nuances of the Jack's performances. It's a rock concert though so I'm not complaining.

The first real stunner of the night was a backing-vocal free Love Interruption. It tamed the crowd a bit and really brought the strength of this band out. With the Peacocks the tune is played very smartly but perhaps a bit obviously. Here Jack really gets to flesh out the vocal line and breath new life into his first solo single. But it was Daru who really did the heavy lifting of the arrangement and you can see why Jack is so excited to have a hip hop drummer play along to folk melodies. He played the exact opposite to what you would expect and the songs was so much stronger for it. The verse was a slow burn with very light percussion while the chorus was one long crescendo to a climax that didn't come until the very end. This also featured a very funny moment as Jack, noticing Sydney's passion for singing along, stopped playing and gave us entire verse to sing. We completely fucked it up though because while we knew the words no one knew which verse went where and it was sort of like one of those school song moments that just collapses in on itself.

We redeemed ourselves however when Jack commented on our sing-along skills and asked us to help him out with Hotel Yorba. As great as the new country arrangement is it was all about the bare-bones of the song itself and I was transported back to 2006 in all its red, white and black glory. I don't think Jack needed to even sing any of the song because everyone knew every single word and of course he did cut out and let us handle it for almost half the tune. It was brilliantly placed in the set because nothing brings instant good vibes to a gig the same way Hotel Yorba does.

Jack diverted from the crowd-pleasers for You Know That I Know. No one knew what the hell was going on and shut up and swayed along, there were even a few lighters in the air. While I was the only one who was singing along in the immediate vicinity of where I was, everyone treated it with respect and it was clear to see why. The band really add such a nice flavour to what was a pretty great song to start with. Jack gets to do his best southern gentleman routine, going from humour to heartbreak and howls to whispers. The mandolin gets its big standout moment of the night while Daru just takes everything up a notch by once again playing against genre.

We were back to Blunderbuss with Hypocritical Kiss and Jack stayed on the acoustic this time round. That was a very good choice because the songs sounds really off every time he plays it on electric. The melody got a nice chance to shine and the loud-soft dynamics were given much more emphasis. I usually don't compliment fidelity to a studio recording in a concert but it was really appropriate for this song and when the band rocked out for the breakdown it was really stirring and actually benefited from not having Jack soloing all over the place. And of course he broke a string.

The first true highlight of the night came afterwards as Jack noodled around on his telecaster, slowly turning a haunting fingerpicked blues into a dark, menacing and understated performance of Cannon that was downright creepy. Of course this interpretation was predictably abandoned as the 'chorus' (read: notes become power chords) just about thrashed us all into oblivion. It's really weird that the most overtly White Stripes song played was one of the most appealing but Cannon is an even stronger riff than Seven Nation Army and fleshing it out really turns it into a masterpiece.

Cannon slowly turned into something else and it took me a while before I realised it but as soon as the rhythm came in it was clear that we were hearing the tour debut of Broken Boy Soldier. It was extremely excited just to hear such a great song but truth be told it didn't have the power of The Raconteurs version. The dense sound that The Raconteurs had down pat can't really be recreated by the Buzzards and I thought they needed to go a bit more outside the box to really make this great. But you can't argue with the power of those breakdowns.

We then got Weep Themselves to Sleep which is one of my favourite numbers from Blunderbuss and while I've heard some versions that are a bit rough around the edges, the guys nailed it here. Once again Daru really upped the ante with so many great flourishes all throughout the song. The loud soft dynamics were much stronger than usual, as the song requires, with the choruses being extremely explosive compared to the funky stuttering of the verses.

Moving to the piano, Jack introduced the band while noodling around on the keys slowly building up a riff that got more intense and turned into the midsection of Trash Tongue Talker. This new intro is really well placed and made the song a lot more fun. It's not exactly a masterpiece of composition but live he really managed to create something special out of it. In fact it may have gotten the crowd moving the most (besides the openers and the encores) which is really saying something for an old fashioned parlour style song.

The next song was another highlight of the night and a real surprise. Jack picked up his acoustic again (with a new string attached) and slowly jammed his way into a stunning rendition of On & On. This is probably my least favourite song on Blunderbuss but by switching to the acoustic and having Daru just do his thing (his downright awesome thing) the new arrangement managed to cut through the murk of the studio take and really bring out the lovely melody underneath. Everyone stood still and swayed for this one and it was quite beautiful with the band dropping out for the refrain as the crowd took over the lyrics.

This was immediately followed by another top-notch song, this time from over ten years ago. I've always thought that Same Boy You've Always Known was a great song but the full band really helps it become something even stronger. The pedal steel and the mandolin flesh out the melody and make the big rock and roll moments even bigger. When the 'yeah yeah's come in the band let rip entirely but come back down to almost a whisper for the verses. The actual arrangement itself is basically the same but no other song from the old days benefits from added textures quite like this one.

These two highlights were followed by the definitive moment of the night: I Cut Like A Buffalo. I shouldn't have enjoyed this nearly as much as I did. I'd heard it only two years ago live and most of the rest I'd never seen before but I just can't deny the power of this song and how amazing the various little tangents that the band goes down are. There's the Rakim intro jam that is as funky as all hell and once we get into the simple but stirring riff it just comes together beautifully. Instead of going back into the intro Jack pulled out his own little folk melody for the midsection. It shouldn't have worked but it did and when the band burst back into Buffalo the crowd went nuts. And in terms of climaxes, this song leaves all the rest behind as the riff is slowed down to a snails pace and slowly builds up to a HUGE finish that has Jack and the crowd shouting at the top of their voices 'I cut like a buffalo'!

Jack then moved over to the piano to noodle around on the piano before launching into Dead Leaves & The Dirty Ground. The bombastic take that has been opening concerts this year leaves me cold but with a piano instead of a guitar the melody was given room to breath and the band were finally able to claim this one as their own. Nothing will ever top Jack and Meg pounding through this as an opening number but with a new arrangement this was as strong as the song can be now.

And then came the big moment of the night: Blue Veins. Is there a greater springboard for Jack White's talents than this dark and moody blues number? The shrieking. The howling. The guitar work. I've watched The Raconteurs perform this a million times and I'll never get sick of it. If its not my favourite Jack White song then it is definitely in the top five. So did seeing it live blow my mind?

No. I'm really sad to say it didn't.

It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination but it was neither the highlight of the concert nor anything close to the magic The Raconteurs can create from it. The major problem with it was that the Buzzards can't be The Raconteurs. I'm not saying The Raconteurs are a better band its just that they're very different and trying to copy them is futile. I got the impression that the band were played a Raconteurs show during rehearsals as the arrangement was lifted 100% from the live version that the Racs did. If it was the studio version they were copying, I could understand but to try and recreate a live version verbatim is an exercise in utter futility. It's the stuff of tribute bands and I expect more from Jack and The Buzzards. Jack himself was definitely performing well but it didn't feel as real as usual. Every time I've seen Blue Veins done live Jack completely disappears into the song and doesn't seem to even open his eyes, he's so overcome with emotion. I'm sure this is part performance but you certainly wouldn't know because it's such a convincing act or even genuine. But tonight this did feel like a performance. Instead of heartfelt larger than life drama this felt like melodrama. It's an extremely hard line to walk but if anyone can pull it off its him and tonight I don't think he did.

After an encore break where the entire crowd chanted the melody of Little Room (awesome) Jack re-emerged to burst into Sixteen Saltines. Quite frankly this was just a lot of noise and movement from where I was and I don't mean that as a criticism at all. It's just such a fast and heavy song that when coupled with such a lively crowd it becomes way more about the experience than the music.

Jack then treated us to Steady As She Goes which was a very, very pleasant surprise. Finally a Raconteurs song was given its due. I really should be over this song by now but I still can't resist it's charm. It does for me what Seven Nation Army does for everyone else, it's overexposure never threatening to overcome the pop pleasures that it possesses in spades. It really was a showcase for all the strengths of Jack's career. There were riffs a plenty, catchy melodies, some inspired guitar solos, extended jam sessions and a fantastic sing-a-long section. The same can basically be said for Hardest Button To Button. I've heard this song way more then anyone ever should and yet it never fails to get me going. When Jack bursts into the chorus and snarls about childhood petulance it's absolutely impossible not to jump up and down.

There's nothing left to say about Seven Nation Army at this stage so I'll simply say that while it may be a bit overexposed for my tastes there's no denying its power.

So did I change my mind about the solo tour? Well I certainly had a good time and Jack White can perform like no one else. But this is not in the same league as either The Dead Weather concert or The White Stripes show I've been to. With those you really get to see Jack struggle, fight against something and truly show the strength he's made of. Most people are glad to see him embrace what seemed like a foregone conclusion for so long: standing out front with a band built around him, singing every note and providing every guitar line. But for me the true genius of Jack lies in those moments where he's leaping from the keyboard to the drum-kit across the stage; when he's leering between Brendan Benson and Patrick Keeler like a caged animal waiting to be unleashed; or when he's commanding the entire stage while sitting down, confined to a drum stool. There probably won't be a gig this year that tops the one last night but I know Jack is capable of more. I wasn't disappointed, I had a good time and I definitely got my moneys worth but while the set list alone should have made me faint I know that what I saw last night wasn't what I fell in love with many years ago.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

#23 You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)

Within the White Stripes' fan base, just like any other artist, opinions are divided. Considering that the band never made a definite misstep in their catalogue of LPs its hard to find a very definitive consensus on what the 'best' White Stripes album is. Fans who were swept in with the wave of White Blood Cells or Elephant often stick to those albums, as do critics; the Detroit garage-rock loyalists will always maintain that the band's peak was during their first album; there are some, myself included, who view the dark and difficult Get Behind Me Satan as the true masterpiece; and there are many who would consider their grand finale Icky Thump to be the culmination of all the various pieces that made up the band previously and they would have Ben Blackwell to back them up. However I tend to think that if a White Stripes fan convention was held, when the time came to decide on the music, the one album that would appease everybody would be the cult favourite De Stijl. You like the no-frills garage rock? It's got it. You like the face-melting riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud? It's got it. You like the tender and well constructed pop that landed Jack at the White House to pay tribute to Paul McCartney? It's got it. You like rough and tumble motor-city translations of the delta blues? Hell yeah. What about all those other weird little musical forays that are unclassifiable yet distinctly White Stripes? Oh you betcha! So here is my pretty ballsy opening statement: De Stijl may be the perfect White Stripes album.

So why was White Blood Cells the breakout and not this album? I honestly have no idea. Context may have played a key role but when I listen to De Stijl with the benefit of hindsight I hear a band fully poised to take on the world. In fact I can easily imagine an alternate universe where You're Pretty Good Looking sent the band hurtling into the top 40. You see, this was, I believe, the first White Stripes song I ever heard. I obviously didn't see it as a masterpiece of composition, musicianship or production but it eventually drilled its way into my head until it was raking up plays on my iPod and pushing me to explore more of the red, white and black albums lying around. I've always thought that this experience could have been universal, this song always had the potential to be pissing us off at 00s themed parties for the rest of our lives. In this alternate universe The White Stripes would be cast off as one hit wonders and would spend the rest of their careers desperately trying to escape the image of 'that You're Pretty Good Looking band'. Let's all pause to be thankful this bleak alternate reality never occurred.

But I indulge in this flight of fancy for a reason. You're Pretty Good Looking is the first and best example of a very curious style: a White Stripes pop song. It's easy to forget that while the debut album and various singles occasionally took time out of the garage thrashers for an oddball parlour piano number, this was an extremely radical departure for the band at this point. As a Detroit garage two-piece that were recording in the living room, the Stripes were hardly the most obvious people to be pulling delicious pop songs out of nowhere but they did it anyway. The results are sweet and fun, playing the peppermint logo out beyond simple aesthetics. Of course garage pop is far from a contradiction, as Jack White will happily tell you. Them, The Kingsmen, The Sonics and many others were merely pop bands (their brand of rock n roll was the pop of the day) who played too fast and sloppy for the Ed Sullivan show. So while this track may be a big step away from their early material it certainly has precedent in the artists the band call their influences. The simplicity of the genre their playing, whether you call it garage rock or rock n roll, is really based on evoking a fairly primal reaction from the audience and often the best way to achieve that is light and infectious music that drags you and your favourite gal to the dance floor.

However there's something else going on here that needs to be addressed. The lyrics are fucking bizarre. The title itself is clever and catchy enough, the bracketed subtitle adds a petulant innocence that meshes well with the whole childlike nature of the bands images. But you hit roadblocks when you get to complete non-sequiters like 'this feeling's still gonna linger on until the year 2525 now' or 'your back is so broken'. The rhythm and tone of those lines feels perfect when humming along but are really out of place in this type of song when you think about it.

And that's both this song and the band in a nutshell. It's a collection of scattered and often conflicting ideas, sounds and images that mesh together to create something that makes perfect sense even though it doesn't. While it predates their true break into the mainstream, this song gives you an idea of how the band wormed their way into the public consciousness. They took old and worn out elements of western pop music and haphazardly reconstructed it in a way that was incredibly fresh at the time.

And also, it's a lot of goddamn fun.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dead Weather VS Loretta Lynn - An Insane Moment of Awesomeness

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I've obviously been engulfing my self in in Blunderbuss and its tour but goddammit this pulls me straight back into Dead Weather fan mode. The complete opposites of Jack Whites career come together and it is downright amazing.

I heard that this happened last year but it took me until now to hear it. Worth the wait.

In other news: a new blog post is half written as well as a Vault package review.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: Vault Package # 10

I should probably review Vault packages more often. Just a brief little jotting down of my thoughts on the most recent offering from Third Man's subscription service. I've been a subscriber since the beginning and I've never found nothing to like in a package. Maybe I'll retrospectively take a look at the packages of the past. But for now I'll have a look at the fun but rag-tag tenth package.

The Raconteurs - Live At Third Man Records

What I should get out of the way first are the sound issues that have mired this LP in controversy. People have been complaining of distorted and inconsistent sound as well as a strange whirling. This is a shame considering that the Live at Third Man LPs are highly regarded for their wonderful analogue quality. My copy of this LP starts off pretty badly, the volume goes and up and down for Consoler of the Lonely and the first three tracks all badly clip. I'm pretty sure that this is at least partly to do with some issue that occurred during the actual recording as the sound clearly points towards mics not being able to take the noise. However, all things said and done, this isn't really a make-or-break issue. The first song is sort of lost and the second two are a bit below standard but the rest of the LP sounds absolutely solid particularly when you consider how hard to record the Racs are live (this is a story to get into if I ever talk about the Live In London LP).

The album itself is pretty great with some ace moments. Having a live Racs album that is well balanced with Patrick Keeler nicely out in front is by itself something to celebrate. Jack's voice, while hardly poor, is not the best its ever been but he and Brendan still give a really good performance. There are some great jam moments such as the I Can See For Miles excerpt at the end of Hands, the little boogie outro to Broken Boy Soldiers and the numerous sing-alongs and guitar doodling during Steady As She Goes. The best moments of the LP are when the band just 'click' together, most notably on Many Shades of Black and The Switch and The Spur, both helped by some raunchy live horns. The songs are propelled forward by some note-perfect Jack solos and amazing drumming by Patrick Keeler. In fact, it's Keeler who really owns this album. With his drums placed front and centre in the mix we can really enjoy his playing, which, tonight is above par even for him. Speaking of Patrick Keeler...

Devil's Night At Third Man Records

Everyone who's not Elvira or a Greenhorne, get out of the fucking hall.

You gotta to hand it to Third Man on this one. Their track record on Vault DVDs is less than stellar but here they've really given us a fully loaded disc of goodies that wouldn't feel out of place as a general release. And even more extraordinarily, the black and white feels fully justified.

The documentary 'feature' that is advertised as the meat of the disc (lengthwise it's not) is quite well done in terms of direction and editing. The content features nothing revelatory but has some very cute moments. There's a particularly sweet scene where Brendan calls bullshit on Jack's astronaut costume and another where Jack yells at everyone for blocking the hallway. (Perhaps I just love seeing Third Man artists swear). Jack provides the slightly cryptic, often sarcastic, commentary on the origins and motives for this big ass halloween party while Patrick Keeler gives a fairly straightforward narration of The Greenhornes and their role at the party. The prosaic 'fly on the wall' scenes are contrasted with the very over the top party sequence which intercuts the performances with sword swallowing, fire breathing and various ghoulish audience members. It's a nice and polished product that hits the mark of what it wants to do.

The Black Belles performance is actually very good, rising above my expectations. The set is, probably for the best, kept short but the few songs that get showcased are performed with lust and lustre. The show is helped along by some more outstanding recording work by Vance Powell, the in-house engineer at the Third Man blue room. The stand out is a cracking cover of The Sonics' classic The Witch (inexplicably sans-bassline) that underlines the garage/gothic fusion niche that the Black Belles are carving out for themselves.

The full Greenhornes performance, which makes up the majority of the DVD, is the real meat and potatoes here. To be honest I only gave it a passing look and pretty much just ripped the audio straight to iTunes for continuous play. The Greenhornes aren't a particularly engaging band visually although they do provide some laughs in this instance with a few ZZ Top send-ups. The most important thing about this show is that it is (as far as I know) the first pro-recorded Greenhornes live show. I've seen them live and know that they have a ferocious sound on stage so I desperately wanted document of it. The sound is good although it doesn't capture the full punch that the Greenhornes should have. Still it's a marvellous performance, well recorded, that features some true gems. The songs from the then-forthcoming **** dominate the set but I think that those songs got stronger as the tour went on (from what I saw in early 2011). The real highlights are the covers, particularly Going To The River and the live staple Lost Woman which is finally given the fidelity it deserves. The other major highlight is Shelter Of Your Arms, a song overshadowed by The White Stripes cover, but one that is always a highlight live and probably stands out as the bands strongest original. I was sad to see Go Tell Henry and I'll Go Crazy but I have the more than sufficient LP versions to appease me. All in all this is a disc that I'll revisit, at least in audio form, time and time again. A real keeper.

The White Stripes/Dead Weather Remix Single

I'll be honest: I'm yet to hear a remix I love. But I entered into this with an open mind and unfortunately was disappointed. It's silly to say that 'remixes are stupid, why bother?' before hearing the tracks because the intentions here were noble and creative but both attempts fall flat on their face.

Beck's redux of The Hardest Button To Button has a few glimmers of excitement where you can here sketches of how he's toyed with the original track in a creative way. Unfortunately the final product just sounds like a completely generic dance remix, almost, and it pains me to say this, like a DJ for hire remixing on the spot. The song just goes a bit faster and has a whole lot of stop-start and breakdown moments. It really just sounds like Beck took the time to ably disassemble the song and then awkwardly pieced it back together in a rush.

The Dead Weather remix is far more interesting but still falls short of the mark. The Mark Lanegan vocals add a dark new angle to the song but it doesn't all mesh well. The minimalist use of Jack's floor toms and Allison's echoed voice is smart but it doesn't play with dynamics in a nuanced way at all and the breakdowns, when they come, feel completely out of place. The transitions in both pitch and tempo are so awkwardly handled that this very ambitious remix falls much harder and further than it rightfully should.

Summing Up

This is far from the best the Vault has given us but it still justifies its price tag. The LP and DVD are nice mementos even though they don't go that far back into the actual vault itself. It's sort of like Third Man's spring cleaning of projects that needed to be released before they were dragged into obscurity and irrelevance, although this not necessarily a bad thing. The remix was clearly meant to be a treat for fans but it was probably a misjudgement of the fans' wishes. Still, good on them for trying something new. I'm glad I own this, like every Vault package, and if you see it on eBay and are curious I'd snatch up. But if you missed out I wouldn't cry over it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

#22 Hand Springs

In a more generous age of the music industry the non-album single was a highly coveted product. Whether true or not, a common complaint about the modern pop album is that it consists of a hit single surrounded by filler. You could argue that once upon a time the reverse was true, for example She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand never appeared on a Beatles' record and you'd be forgiven for thinking that Jumping Jack Flash was on Beggar's Banquet. The classic stand-alone singles of rock history could have been placed comfortably within a classic LP but were instead given their own spotlight to showcase a certain sound in the most radio-friendly way possible.

This is far from the case when it comes to Hand Springs.

There is absolutely nowhere in The White Stripes discography where Hand Springs wouldn't be out of place. Every type of melodic, lyrical and tonal style that the band has adopted does in no way accommodate the mind bending absurdity that is Hand Springs. The context is nearly as weird and unlikely as the song itself. Jack and Meg recorded this song for a bowling magazine, backed by a Dirtbombs song. There is no universe where that sentence makes any sense. I didn't even no there were bowling magazines. And what the hell was one doing releasing a 7" garage rock single in 1999 anyway? Is there a crossover market I'm missing out on?

Jack White's love of truth and disdain for irony often makes us ignore the fact that he's actually got a tendency to be very funny and extremely sarcastic and Hand Springs is a tour de force of complete silliness. Although, to its credit, the weird love/bowling story is told with a complete straight face and even gets a little philosophical catchphrase at the end. Still, I think its a leap too far to take this song too seriously.

Musically, however, this track does jump into a new level of sophistication for the band that sort of shows up on De Stijl but doesn't really reemerge until Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump. For one thing, I think that there is an actual bass guitar on this track as opposed to the signature whammy/guitar combo that has become a trademark, so it's historic in one way at least. But even beyond that piece of trivia, Hand Springs gives a small piece of foreshadowing of how much further Jack was willing to stretch out within the little room he built for himself. The Sub-Pop single gives us another hint and by the time we hit Get Behind Me Satan the restriction have all but disappeared. The bass-line and spoken word breaks some new ground for the band in a very unassuming fashion. Of course its all broken up by a jaunty rock n roll riff that is almost as much fun as the narrative. Still, the experimental nature of the record seems to not be lost on Jack as seen in this recent(ish) performance where it is integrated into a freakish Seven Nation Army jam.

All that aside, this is a fun little piece of storytelling that shouldn't be over-thought, just enjoyed. Despite its simplicity, the early work of the band went to some dark places so this is a refreshing change. I had fun revisiting this little chestnut and I suggest you should all do the same.

Okay, now let me FUCKING GET TO DE STIJL!!!!!

Friday, January 27, 2012

#21 Red Bowling Ball Ruth

I'm not gonna lie, I'd really like to be talking about De Stijl right now. The eclectic styles, delicately crafted lyrics and well defined pop melodies provide ample fodder for this blog while the first album almost spits in the face of this entire project. To recap: the first White Stripes album is a masterpiece but it is problematic to take apart song by song because it's more about the cumulative effect of all that motor-city bashing than the individual characteristics of each song that propels the album. Melodies often repeat themselves and songs seem insignificant on their own but when you add it all up you've got one hell of a debut. So what do we say about a song like Red Bowling Ball Ruth, a song that possesses all the sonic and structural hallmarks of the other debut tracks yet, for better or worse, is forced to stand alone as a B-Side. Does it collapse under closer scrutiny or is it allowed a deserved moment in the spotlight?

Originally I was going to answer quite simply that it was a minor track that we're fortunate to have but doesn't stand out or add any new dynamics to the bands catalogue. It's a great basher that deliciously implodes from its own recklessness, as so many of these early songs do, but how can it rise above similar entries in the discography? I was ready to write off this song but then I realised something: this song has fans. Lots of fans. When scanning The Little Room forum I kept seeing reference to how masterful this song is, that it is the essence of The White Stripes and is their most underrated classic. Somewhere within the cult of the White Stripes, within the cult of the early period had developed the cult of Red Bowling Ball Ruth. So I knew I had to really give this song another shot, because I must be missing something. So of course, I looked to the lyrics.

In the early days of the White Stripes, Ben Blackwell taped the live shows off the board and drove around with them blasting in his car. In other words he was the first White Stripes fan.
He once said in an interview that the first album was a revelation because he could hear all the 'Dylanesque' lyrics that were meant to accompany the music he'd been driving around to this whole time. This story alludes to what I find the funniest part of the first album. You often can't hear a fucking word being said even though the lyrics are actually very clever (Broken Bricks being the best example). On the other hand, to make the songs clearer would be to go against the sound that defines this music. It's sort of a weird paradox that exists in the early stages of the band. Thus, it only seems appropriate, that Red Bowling Ball Ruth begins with a hilariously ironic line when taken in context:

Well pay attention
Attention to my words.

I've tried Jack. That's easier said than done. In fact I just flat out gave up and the good folks at Google had to give me the lyrics for the purpose of this post so I could listen along to them. Honestly, they do very little for me. The cryptic style that Jack's stuck to for a lot of his career does him a lot of favours while most songs seem to have some general consistent theme that you can sort of analyse intellectually. I'm not saying I can "figure out" any of Jack's song but I can't even really find much discussion in these lyrics besides the cute first line. On top of this, if there's no narrative or thematic thread that is being followed then layering potent images on top each other can be more than enough to arouse an emotional response but I also find that lacking here. If someone can perhaps respond to my first issue, I'd love to take it up in the comments but the latter problem is purely subjective so I guess thats my problem. Essentially, both lyrically and musically this song fails to stand out for me. I love it because it is a White Stripes song and possesses all the traits that make them great, but I'd never choose it as a standard-bearer by any means.

So I think I have the disparity between this songs appreciation and my own indifference figured out. After going through every song on the album that bears many similarities with this one (both in this blog and in my general listening experience) I feel like this is a superfluous addition that doesn't add anything to great songs I feel represent this period with gusto. But to many people this song IS that period and I can easily see why this feels like the microcosm of 1999 White Stripes. Whether or not this is your favourite, you can't deny that you're hearing the White Stripes served straight up as they should be.