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.