It was evident right from the beginning that Jack White harbored the loftiest of ambitions, determined to assume a place in the pantheon of rock music as a bona fide superstar. He employed myriad tactics to further these aspirations, most notable amongst them being the spreading of seemingly arbitrary misinformation in the interest of garnering some extra attention.
To this end the erstwhile Jack Gillis adopted the sobriquet Jack White, portraying himself as the brother of drummer Meg White as opposed to her ex-husband. It's difficult to ascertain what inspired this distortion of reality and shifting of nomenclature, but regardless of White's motivations this deception at least had the desired effect of earning the band at least a modicum of mainstream buzz, albeit buzz born more of confusion than rock and roll accomplishments.
The band consisted solely of this allegedly brother/sister duo, with Jack as guitarist (before this sibling masquerade he'd been the drummer in a small-time garage rock band, but he still acquits himself admirably on the axe) and Meg on drums. Conspicuously absent from the rock outfit is a bassist, generally an essential component of any hard rock group, but the White Stripes make do with the limits this omission imposes on their arrangements.
As a result of the band's tendency to restrict themselves to the bare essentials the group have a very raw, primal sound, which constitutes a large part of the album's charm. While the White Stripes would in time undergo a measure of growth and musical evolution nearly unprecedented in the genre, for now the band are forced to rely heavily on this viscerally gratifying primitivism, as Jack White had yet to develop into the accomplished songwriter he'd become in later years.
The band's eponymous debut is, in reality, quite generic, filled with basic, familiar riffs, rudimentary melodies and derivative song structures, not to mention a tremendously narrow scope when it comes to genre experimentations. While this may sound like an insurmountable liability, the fact of the matter is that the band's primal sound animates these otherwise unremarkable tracks and somehow transfigures them into highly entertaining fare that's rather exhilarating through their sheer rocking power.
Thus the album's melodic and creative deficit is largely compensated for through the exciting, compelling sound of the arrangements, as the band's debut is informed by an elegant simplicity that invests power in even the most run of the mill rock songs. Jack White's guitarwork may be little more than competent, primarily comprised of basic, imitation-guitar-heroics with some blues overtones, his guitar-tone is an irresistible blend of heaviness and retro garage rock that eschews the usual heavy metal excesses in favor of a more organic, immediate sound.
Jack White valiantly tries to conjure exceptional riffs, but as catchy and effective as the riffs to songs like Cannon are they're ultimately far too familiar and pedestrian to include them in the lexicon of great modern riffage.
The vocal melodies are similarly basic and generic, strong enough to be entertaining in the short term but a far cry from anything that could be construed as memorable or creative.
Nonetheless the album is enjoyable through the sheer force of willpower of Jack and Meg White, as the counterfeit siblings truly put their all into the performances leaving a final product that's far stronger than it has any right to be given its innate, rather severe limitations.
The album isn't completely bereft of diversity, but even the covers that one would expect to be massive stylistic deviations, like Dylan's One More Cup Of Coffee, are assimilated into the garage rock sound that typifies the CD; this isn't so much a case of the White Stripes making the song their own as simply having a set style that they have great difficulty working past or extricating themselves from, which lends a certain uniformity to any approach they seek to tackle. Nonetheless while One More Cup Of Coffee is vastly inferior to the Zimmerman original it's still quite enjoyable, as is Stop Breaking Down even though it's markedly less captivating that the Stones' rendition. The band's sound remains alluring despite its static nature, and somehow manages to seem appropriate even in a context wherein one would anticipate something different from it.
While it's clear that this formula can't sustain any subsequent albums, for the time being it makes for an immensely entertaining, if shallow, listen. There's a limit to how far energetic performances can go when there are defects in the songwriting department, especially if one isn't a guitar virtuoso on the level of a Hendrix or a Clapton, but the White Stripes manage to produce compelling rock music, albeit compelling rock music that in no way hints at the heights that the band would scale on their later outings once their raw power became a complementary element rather than the attraction itself.
On their sophomore outing the White Stripes already demonstrate strong signs of progression, exhibiting growth not only in terms of songwriting but in the diversity department as well.
This also enables Jack White to prove that he's not only a great asset to the band as far as vocals and songwriting are concerned but also when it comes to guitarwork, as the increased variety functions as a showcase for the erstwhile Gillis' command of his instrument. Jack White has most definitely progressed as far as musicianship is concerned, deftly shifting from impeccable slide-guitarwork on Little Bird to fluid hard rock solos on Hello Operator to gentle acoustic strumming on I'm Bound To Pack It Up, adroitly handling each genre and never once sounding out of his element.
De Stijl's increased variety is good for more than displaying Jack White's instrumental versatility, however, as it also serves to make the album far more compelling and dynamic. The variety sustains the listener's attention in a way that the band's somewhat monotonous debut couldn't, as well as differentiating the White Stripes from the legions of far more limited garage rock revivalists.
Most important, however, is Jack White's growth as a songwriter. The melodies on De Stijl are far more creative and memorable than those depicted on the group's eponymous outing, as the gifted frontman is finally beginning to develop a distinctive identity as a composer.
No longer is Jack White simply generating a plethora of interchangeable riffs and clichéd melodies, nor does he still rely on raw arrangements to capture his audience's collective imaginations. While he hasn't reached his full potential at this early date there are certainly myriad indications of his future greatness, as the poppy You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl) predicts the bouncy hooks of Doorbell while the menacing Little Bird anticipates the sinister morbidity of The Hardest Button To Button.
This isn't implying any level of subsequent self-plagiarism, as these songs only superficially resemble their later counterparts. It's merely that elements that would become prevalent in the band's later work have already begun to surface, and remarkably they're already being handled with the utmost care and precision.
There are certainly some misfires, like the drab balladry of Sister, Do You Know My Name? and the enervated tedium of A Boy's Best Friend, but by and large the songwriting on De Stijl is topnotch.
Apple Blossom introduces new facets of the band's persona, even including some tasteful piano-work, and thanks to a stellar melody this sonic expansion proves eminently successful.
Elsewhere the aforementioned Little Bird is unsettling yet catchy, an effective and challenging combination that the band pulls off with ease, while I'm Bound To Pack It Up is quite pretty. The cover Death Letter continues the band's tradition of selecting classic tracks that suit them well, while Truth Doesn't Make A Noise is a stellar rocker with a healthy level of energy and aggression.
While the closer, a cover of Blind Willie McTell's Your Southern Can Is Mine, may seem incongruous, but in reality the album was envisioned by the Whites as a tribute to the legendary bluesman, and when looked at from this perspective it's a touching tribute that in no way detracts from the CD, if anything adding another layer to the proceedings.
Thus De Stijl is an improvement over its predecessor in virtually every respect. Some may object to the fact that the band's raw, primal side has been toned down to some extent, but fond as I was for that element of the White Stripes' sound I commend the group for diluting that aspect of themselves, as it forces them to progress as artists instead of simply using that primitive style as a crutch. The band no longer need to rely on raw riffage or savage arrangements to attract an audience, instead building their sound around their newfound strengths as rock artists, an integral first step for any group and one that the White Stripes thankfully take quite successfully.
White Blood Cells was the White Stripes' commercial breakthrough, a lucrative outing that instantly catapulted the duo to the top of the modern rock hierarchy. Eliciting raves from the rock and roll critical establishment and strong sales from an enthusiastic audience, the 'brother and sister' suddenly became ubiquitous in all avenues of pop culture, as MTV bombarded music video aficionados with incessant airings of Fell In Love With A Girl, the radio airwaves were oversaturated with White Stripes output like Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground and gossip hosts obsessively overanalyzed the fabricated relationship between the two band members.
The inevitable question is whether or not the album merited this kind of attention, and in my opinion it certainly didn't, at least no more so than De Stijl ever had. White Blood Cells contains its fair share of compact, slickly packaged and single friendly tunes like Fell In Love With A Girl, and these uber-commercial products likely account for much of the album's appeal to a new audience, but the fact of the matter is that from a songwriting standpoint the CD is a step down from the group's sophomore effort.
Unlike the highly consistent De Stijl, White Blood Cells is quite an erratic offering from the band with its share of egregious lapses of taste. Hotel Yorba, the band's attempt at a pop gem, is a decidedly sloppy affair, but rather than being sloppy in a charming sense it simply comes across as an amateurish fiasco from a group who had yet to master the fundamentals of the genre. While the song certainly has a measure of self-awareness, clearly being marketed as a light-hearted, jokey romp, its aggressive absurdity stems more from its incompetence than any sly sense of self-deprecating humor.
Worse are Little Room, a grating exercise in trying the listener's patience for its thankfully short duration, and its follow-up The Union Forever, which features Jack White dabbling in the kind of atonal screaming that Black Francis had mastered and coming up short, with this cacophony segueing into a completely inane rap that lacks the wit and charm of David Byrne's vocal spotlight on Cross-eyed And Painless and instead comes across as an act of colossal stupidity and self-indulgence.
Aluminum is also woefully extraneous, a mind-numbing instrumental devoid of any craftsmanship or creativity, and while few other tracks are outright offensive quite a few constitute forgettable filler.
The aforementioned excruciating episodes are united by a common theme, namely that they represent the album's most experimental moments. For the time being, it seems that when the band leave their comfort territory and attempt something radically new or different they tend to falter, or worse collapse altogether. While in time the White Stripes would hone their craft and become capable of tackling a broader spectrum of sounds, on White Blood Cells the band simply overextend themselves, resulting in dismal soundscapes and empty arena rock.
Fortunately the highlights of White Blood Cells rank amongst the best of the band's creations, not justifying the boundless accolades the album was the unworthy recipient of but at least proving that the CD is still a worthwhile product for any and all fans of the group.
Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground is a stellar opener, a tight rocker with a solid reverberating riff and some decent vocal melodies ably delivered by the ever-improving Jack White.
Elsewhere I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman is another quality affair, while the hit Fell In Love With A Girl is an exhilarating adrenaline rush that pulls the listener through its myriad hooks at a breakneck pace until it concludes at precisely the right moment to prevent it from ever growing stale or monotonous. Unlike Hotel Yorba, Fell In Love With A Girl offers terrific pop melodies, as these tunes are filtered through the band's pre-existing hard rock strengths as opposed to being delivered through the medium of a makeshift, haphazardly constructed pop song, a context in which the band are most assuredly not in their element (or at least, not at this stage of their careers).
We're Going To Be Friends is a gentle, nostalgic rumination on bygone days that's somewhat sappy yet still quite appealing, while rockers like Offend In Every Way offers some of the band's classic brand of garage riff rockers (though admittedly not every song on White Blood Cells that conforms to this description is comparably successful).
Ultimately White Blood Cells is quite entertaining, but it's still a victim of its disproportionate, almost arbitrary hype. It features a handful of songs that are at the nadir of the band's canon, and while the group compensate for that defect with some terrific numbers the looming presence of filler prevents the album from being the classic it transparently aspires to be.
With songs like Fell In Love With A Girl and Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground the album definitely warrants a listen, but I would still place the CD a notch below De Stijl; White Blood Cells may be the album that made the group famous, but De Stijl was the album that made the band one of the top new acts in the guitar-rock genre.
White Blood Cells had introduced the White Stripes to a far wider audience, granting them the kind of mainstream exposure that had eluded them on their first two ventures. Thus it was of paramount importance that the band find a way to retain the new following they'd cultivated, a feat that would take more than a couple of quality singles and the ever alluring enigma of the contradictory relationship that the duo shared. It was clear that, as the follow-up to White Blood Cells, Elephant would be subjected to closer scrutiny than any of their prior fare, placing the band in the unenviable position of plying their trade with the whole world watching.
The band were basically in a position where if they didn't produce a classic it could having devastating implications for their entire careers, a huge dilemma for any group let alone a rock outfit in its early stages that's just released the most erratic album in their diminutive discography. Confronted with this challenge, they had no recourse save to try to craft the best album of their limited lifespan, and somehow they managed to pull off this seemingly impossible task, and with an album created live in the studio over a mere fortnight's worth of work no less.
Elephant is not only more consistent than White Blood Cells, but likewise its best material surpasses the highlights of that inexplicable-breakthrough album. The CD contains some of the best content ever performed by the Whites, with a healthy measure of diversity that recalls the band's graceful versatility on De Stijl as opposed to the disastrous genre experimentations that afflicted White Blood Cells.
The album opens with a true classic, the incredible riff rocker Seven Nation Army. Perhaps addressing the endless complaints of the band's lack of a bassist, Jack White employs a guitar tone that emulates that conspicuously absent instrument, delivering a powerful performance that virtually bludgeons the listener with its explosive forcefulness, and in a good way at that.
Black Math is a superb rocker, and while There's No Home For You Here makes little effort to disguise the fact that it liberally borrows elements from Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground it's still a stellar track, complete with a catchy refrain and lyrics that make an intriguing counterpoint to the Beatles' She's Leaving Home, as in the White Stripes version the girl in question is being exiled for her conduct as opposed to liberating herself from the sheltered existence that had confined her.
To infuse even more variety into the mix the band cover a Bacharach number, namely I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, and unsurprisingly the group deliver an edgier rendition than the more mellow original.
Meg White receives her first vocal spotlight on the hauntingly minimalistic In The Cold, Cold, Night, adroitly disguising her vocal shortcomings while Jack White gives his most spare performance to date, electing to simply strum his instrument at a relaxed pace while his 'sister' delivers her moody, seductive performance.
I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart is relative filler but still charming in its own right, while the prettiness of You've Got Her In Your Pocket does a great job of offsetting its somewhat darker lyrics.
Ball And Biscuit likely poses a stumbling block for many listeners thanks to its extreme lengthiness and lack of musical progression, not to mention its eccentric vocals, but it's still a strong number, establishing an infectious groove that's only enhanced by the song's repetitive character. Jack White's soloing is hardly a technical marvel, but he's sufficiently comfortable with his axe that he gives a decent showing, making for a jam that may not be of the highest caliber but still sustains one's interest throughout its protracted length which is more than enough to justify its place on the album.
The Hardest Button To Button is a definite highlight, a profoundly menacing metallic anthem that rocks with tremendous power and aggression that's elegantly complemented by Jack White's sneering vocals and threatening, unsettling lyrics. The song's an unhinged ode to family values propelled forward by its stellar riff and savage momentum.
Little Acorns is an oddity thanks to its spoken introduction (the inclusion of which is questionable in and of itself given that, while amusing the first time, it's hardly a monologue that one would want to rehear every time one listens to the album), but the speech swiftly segues into another metallic onslaught on which Jack White almost assumes a glam-rock manner of singing. It's not on the same level as the metallic monster that precedes it, but it's still another solid, entertaining number.
Hypnotize is a strong accelerated rocker in the vein of Fell In Love With A Girl (though it never matches the quality of that White Blood Cells classic), leading up to another classic arriving in the form of The Air Near My Fingers, a terrific rock song with irresistible vocals and another catchy riff.
Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine offers more offbeat entertainment, though in a more straight-faced manner than the closer, the silly yet harmlessly fun Well It's True That We Love One Another, a disarmingly innocent note for such a pervasively dark album to end on.
Thus Elephant is easily the zenith of the band's catalogue to this point, betraying the evolution of the duo as both performers and songwriters. Its live-in-the-studio approach recaptures some of the rawness that characterized the band's debut, though with a greater level of confidence and polish that showcases the strides that the duo have made since their precocious first outing.
Despite the monumental commercial success of Elephant, its follow-up, Get Behind Me Satan, received considerably less hype from the record label, and thus an album whose release should have been treated as a major musical event was shipped to stores with only a modicum of fanfare.
The studio's decision to forego the customary advertising campaign that generally accompanies the release of a new album from a prominent rock band may seem perplexing, but after a couple of attentive listens the underlying motivations behind this hype-abstinence become apparent, namely that Get Behind Me Satan is the White Stripes' finest moment and for that very reason couldn't hope to sell as well as that which preceded it.
Much of the success that the White Stripes have enjoyed can be attributed to their fashionable garage rock sound and heavy arrangements, and in this regard an album like Elephant was a prime candidate to generate revenue, a stellar outing that married strong melodies to hard rock instrumentation. The album conformed to fans' expectations from the group, encompassing all the merits that the band possessed as a hard rock outfit.
Get Behind Me Satan, however, is a vastly different type of album; it doesn't wholly eschew the band's hard rock roots but it does compartmentalize them as a single aspect of a more multifaceted rock group. Confining their metallic side to only parts of the album, the White Stripes embrace diversity as never before, achieving far better results than they had during their similar attempts at stylistic expansion on White Blood Cells.
The reason that the band's attempts at diversity are so much more successful on this go-round is simply that the group has progressed as artists; Jack White has honed his songwriting acumen to the point where he can translate his strengths into virtually any genre, penning catchy, memorable melodies in all manner of styles. This maturation as a composer is complemented by his growth as a musician and vocalist, ensuring that the band can realize all of his musical visions without being curtailed by any technical limitations or shortcomings.
Get Behind Me Satan is devoid of filler, a highly consistent product filled with classic White Stripes material that uniformly bespeaks the great strides the band has made as rock artists. Highlights abound, from the infectious rocker Blue Orchid that opens the album to the hook-filled ecstasy of My Doorbell, the group's most convincing attempt at a pop gem yet.
The Nurse is unlike anything that preceded it, an exotic marimba-driven number that proves the band's commitment to expanding their musical horizons and taking risks that may endanger their commercial viability. The song is somewhat marred by Meg White's incongruous pounding percussion, but it's still quite strong and certainly fascinating given its unique status in the band's catalogue.
On Get Behind Me Satan the White Stripes simply excel at every avenue they explore; I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet) is genuinely moving, a first from the customarily aloof Jack White. The album also contains the obligatory token Meg White spotlight, in this case the short yet catchy Passive Manipulation.
Little Ghost is a charming country excursion, Forever For Her (Is Over For Me) is an unforgettable ballad with some superb vocal melodies and The Denial Twist is a rocker with a healthy share of stellar pop hooks.
White Moon is solemn and stately; it's hardly a classic, but thanks to its anomalous nature in the context of the band's usual nature it occupies a unique and intriguing niche on the album and fully justifies its inclusion on the CD.
Instinct Blues, with its raw primitivism, repetitive nature and somewhat dissonant character, is a throwback to the band's debut, and for that very reason it's far more entertaining on Get Behind Me Satan than it would have been on the group's eponymous outing where it would have been lost in the shuffle.
Take. Take. Take is a tremendously catchy number relating an anecdote of fleeting encounters with celebrities, unsurprisingly filtered through Jack White's signature sneering cynicism, Ugly As I Seem is lesser but still quite appealing and Red Rain is a stellar rocker with one of the best riffs in the band's short history.
Get Behind Me Satan is simply a terrific album, one that no one could have anticipated the White Stripes had in them while listening to the straightforward, unremarkable and nondescript heavy metal of their debut. Jack White has somehow become one of the premier songwriters of his era, and this album is a testament to his growth from a stereotypical young rocker to an accomplished, gifted and diverse composer and performer.
When one is perpetually in the public spotlight it has a profound impact on one's actions; one is always inherently afraid of failure, but this fear is exponentially compounded when one's aware that any mistake one makes would be perceived and judged by legions of intolerant spectators.
Such is the case for any major rock star; fans have set expectations for the output of their favorite groups, and thus many a band are reluctant to contradict the image that their audience has envisioned of them. Not everyone can be like Dylan and intentionally and nonchalantly confound the expectations of his listeners, indifferent to their responses and apathetic as to whether or not it irrevocably alienates his fanbase.
This is the situation in which Jack White found himself. While Get Behind Me Satan was highly diverse it still fundamentally conformed to the band's style, albeit twisting it and taking it in vastly new directions. Furthermore, given the album's lackluster reception it reinforced Jack White's fear of change, demonstrating that his audience had little tolerance for deviations from the White Stripes' status quo.
Another factor that limited Jack White's creative mobility was that, given that he had a single collaborator, Meg White, the two of them had gelled into a highly professional rock outfit, familiar with one another to the point that few surprises could emerge from their recording sessions. The erstwhile spouses had a terrific artistic chemistry with one another, but at heart they were a business, doing their jobs then going home.
If Jack White was to be liberated from his artistic constraints then something drastically new would have to transpire. Fortunately the solution to his dilemma arrived in the form of longtime friend and power pop extraordinaire Brendan Benson, with whom he founded an entirely new band, the Raconteurs.
Forming this band addressed Jack White's problems on two fronts. First of all, the Raconteurs output wouldn't be subjected to the intense scrutiny that his White Stripes material was the recipient of, enabling him to experiment and take risks with reckless abandon, no longer having to be concerned with what implications potential mistakes would have on his career.
Secondly, collaborating with an old friend infused a more casual atmosphere into the studio, as the partners were free to laugh and joke around as much as they pleased, a far cry from the factory-line process that typifies most recording sessions. Additionally, White and Benson hadn't really worked together before, meaning that there was no set relationship to dictate the creative routines that bred the inevitable album.
The freedom that this gave both White and Benson enabled them to take their art in any direction that they pleased, and the resultant product was a pop rock album with a decidedly sixties flavor. This wasn't the kind of retro raw garage rock that the White Stripes had dealt with in the past, but rather something more akin to the early days of art rock, complete with psychedelic flourishes and acid tinged guitar licks.
Most importantly, the old friends gelled together with the utmost grace and fluidity. The album was a huge departure for both men, which meant they had no rigid preconceptions of what they wanted to accomplish, leading to an atmosphere of boundless creativity and constant surprises for the duo.
Given that both men are highly accomplished songwriters, it's no surprise that the songs on Broken Boy Soldiers are of the highest caliber. Call It A Day, while decent, is somewhat lesser, but there's little else amongst the album's ten tracks that could ever be construed as filler.
The song that became the catalyst for the group's inception, the stellar pop rocker Steady, As She Goes, is emblematic of all of the album's strengths. It was the first instance of collaboration between White and Benson, and both were sufficiently happy with it that it inspired future partnerships between the two. The track has a charming retro vibe, an infectious moody atmosphere and some incredible vocal hooks, ably demonstrating precisely what this collaboration has to offer.
The artistic success of Steady, As She Goes led to more creative triumphs from the Raconteurs. Even beyond the aforementioned benefits that the enterprise had for White, the White Stripes frontman was also aided by the fact that, for the first time in his professional career, he had a real band at his disposal in the form of bassist Jack Lawrence, drummer Patrick Keeler and, of course, Brendan Benson, who like White also handles the guitarwork, keyboards and vocals. This is a far cry from the guitarist/drummer dynamic that typifies White Stripes releases, and enabled White to be more ambitious with his arrangements.
The two founders strike a rather even creative balance throughout the album, trading lead vocals and functioning as equals when it comes to the songwriting. White and Benson inspire one another to further greatness throughout the album leading to topnotch work from both men.
Steady, As She Goes is hardly the only highlight to be found on Broken Boy Soldiers. The title track is moody and menacing with haunting guitarwork and ominous vocals, achieving an anthemic feel that brings to mind prototypical Goth acts like the Doors and Alice Cooper (without ever really sounding that much like either).
Elsewhere Hands is a terrific number animated by a sixties style innocence and a psychedelic edge that makes it sound as if it wouldn't be out of place in the hands of the Pretty Things circa SF Sorrow, also owing a great debt to Rubber Soul/Revolver-era Beatles.
Intimate Secretary is transparently a product of profound sixties influences, with a poppy melody and ridiculously idiotic lyrics that manage to be quite charming even though they're clearly intentionally stupid, while Together is quite pretty and another definite highlight.
Level is a great rocker, as is Store Bought Bones which could easily be mistaken for a Nuggets track with its jerky refrain and catchy melody in its verses. Yellow Sun is another winner, while Blue Veins integrates blues elements into the proceedings to good effect.
Thus Broken Boy Soldiers is a superb debut. Its critical reception has been lukewarm, a fact that can likely be attributed to its staggering differences from the White Stripes, but with great melodies, terrific performances and a charming sixties essence the album makes for quite an overall package, one that should appeal to any listener who comes in with an open mind as opposed to a fanboy checking in for his White Stripes fix.
Icky Thump assumed a place of paramount importance in Jack White's career, as it's the album that reaffirmed his commitment to the White Stripes in the wake of the Raconteurs' overnight success. Rather than neglect the band that had elevated him to superstardom, Jack White proved himself capable of handling both rock outfits at once without his devotion to either wavering.
And it's apparent from the start of Icky Thump that by no means is it a cursory effort; on the contrary, it's as artistically ambitious as Get Behind Me Satan, bespeaking a level of care and craftsmanship that could never be feigned by a rock star whose heart is elsewhere.
Furthermore, from a songwriting perspective Jack White remains in top form, penning a plethora of catchy melodies and creative hooks. From the metallic meditation on immigration offered by the title track, a stellar riff rocker that admittedly is somewhat marred by its pedestrian, heavy-handed polemical nature, to the gorgeous ballad A Martyr For My Love For You with its rousing refrain, Jack White distinguishes himself as a superb songwriter composing increasingly rich and complex material, a far cry from the raw minimalism that characterized the White Stripes' debut.
This isn't to say that all is well, however, as for some reason the band have developed a propensity for affixing dissonant passages to songs that in no way benefit from aural discord. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues is constructed around a spare, moody melody that's quite attractive, but its pristine soundscapes are savagely ravaged and violated by the sporadic introduction of booming drums that completely dispel any of the track's innate charm. Meg White had always seemed to have difficulty restraining herself from manically pounding on her drum-set at inopportune moments, but by this point her condition has been woefully exacerbated, as if she's perpetually struggling to suppress her inner percussive urges.
Elsewhere, it's difficult to appreciate the debut of bagpipes on a White Stripes album (during the track St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)) when ear destructive, feedback drenched guitar solos explode from the woodwork to the point where the bagpipes are scarcely audible.
This problem recurs throughout the album, but it's not Icky Thump's only shortcoming. Even without the abrasive sonic textures St. Andrew would constitute at worst filler and at best a novelty, and while the exotic cover Conquest does infuse some welcome variety and (attempted) humor into the proceedings I find its overblown theatricality rather grating, an experiment that mirrors Hotel Yorba in terms of being an attempt at something charmingly different that ends up failing due to a lack of familiarity with the genre and poor execution.
Fortunately these defects are more than compensated for by the high caliber of the majority of the album. From the anthemic You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told) to the excellent I'm Slowly Turning Into You (complete with irresistible soft/hard contrasts and a fantastic riff), classics abound on the album. While rockers like Bone Broke are somewhat generic, they're still sufficiently well performed and carefully crafted to differentiate them from the bulk of the derivative effluvia that floods the airwaves.
Thus Icky Thump is another excellent outing from the band. From a songwriting perspective it's comparable with Get Behind Me Satan, mostly losing to its phenomenal predecessor in the consistency department. While its intermittent fits of dissonance are certainly an understandable concern, and it's neither quite as diverse nor animated and lively as Get Behind Me Satan (sounding darker and more depleted for the most part), it remains an outstanding product, and an essential purchase for any fan of the band.
Through the fierce, aggressive rock of the White Stripes and his own, well-documented volatile disposition, Jack White had cultivated a certain tough-guy image for himself, a hard-boiled edginess born of vicious tracks like The Hardest Button To Button and the irreverent social commentary of Icky Thump.
Broken Boy Soldiers clashed with this reputation, as tracks like Intimate Secretary were outright playful, while Hands was informed by a certainly quixotic innocence. Accordingly the critics labeled the album power pop, a designation that was anathema to a man who so cherished his tough-guy-cred.
White had never displayed an aversion toward indulging in the occasional lighter fare, be it the whimsical levity of It's True That We Love One Another, the lightweight pop of My Doorbell or the lush softness of Nurse, but these tracks were always in the context of what were clearly 'rock' albums, whereas Broken Boy Soldiers was transparently a 'pop' album with little in the way of hard rock to compensate for these poppier digressions.
Thus when it came time for he and Benson to produce their sophomore effort, Jack White decided that preserving his image took precedence over the freedom that the Raconteurs side-project had originally afforded him, opting to retain many of the fundamentals of his collaboration while filtering them through a rough conception of the White Stripes' musical values. Thus every note was inspected and regulated to conform to an acceptable image for White, with the side-effect that it's clear that he placed his own needs above his partner's.
The resultant product is one that sounds far closer to the White Stripes than Broken Boy Soldiers ever had. Sixties elements have been retained and Benson is certainly still active in the creative department, but White has added a much harder edge to the proceedings, as most tracks rock far harder and more convincingly than the bulk of the material on their debut.
Thus gone is the pop rock of Steady, As She Goes, replaced with savage metallic riffage, while the lyrics of gentle pseudo-flower-power anthems like Hands have given way to barbaric vignettes like the bloodbath delineated on Carolina Drama.
The fact of the matter, however, is that while Broken Boy Soldiers demonstrated that the duo have a knack for sixties-inspired power pop they likewise (particularly White) have a pronounced aptitude for a heavier approach to this kind of material, ergo the quality of Consolers Of The Lonely is just as high, and likely higher, than on the pair's first outing.
While the band have lost something of the individuality that differentiated them from the White Stripes, the original purpose with which the group was founded, they still sound sufficiently different from the mock-siblings' enterprise that they can be appreciated on their own terms.
Truly, when one has two songwriters as gifted as White and Benson it scarcely matters what genre they choose to indulge in, as the final product will invariably be something well worth listening to. From the sweeping old-west suite The Switch And The Spur, a simply magnificent rocker that's as compelling as it is unique (demonstrating that the band's creativity hadn't wholly eroded when they compromised their sound for the hard rock demographic), while You Don't Understand Me is an exceptional, moody confessional of the highest order.
The album is extremely consistent; there are the inevitable lesser tracks, but they're hardly offensive. It's unfortunate that the looser, more organic sound of the band has become a casualty of White's more serious, no nonsense approach, which makes the Raconteurs sound just as professionally immaculate as the White Stripes. As charming as that atmosphere had been, however, it wasn't a vital ingredient of the band, merely another one of their many merits. What's most important has been retained, namely the accomplished songwriting of Benson and White and a commitment to make high quality music that, while it now somewhat resembles the work of the White Stripes, is still at heart very much its own brand of art.
There are myriad brands of side-projects helmed by notable rock artists, as can be exemplified by arguably the most prolific hand in this field, Robert Pollard. While a plethora of his side-projects represent nothing save a superficial shift in sobriquets, there are other factors that have inspired him to break with his conventional 'Guided By Voices' or eponymous nomenclature.
'The Circus Devils,' for instance, is more than just another name for Pollard to assume. Rather, the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman's decision to operate under that guise can be attributed to an earnest desire to truly try something different. The Circus Devils have cultivated their own unique identity, independent of the confines of the 'Robert Pollard' name, and thus demanded their own separate place in his canon, in much the same way that Grinderman needed to be free of the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds moniker to realize its full potential.
There's yet another common reason that a side-project can be necessitated, which transpires when disparate rock artists cross paths. A side-project can function as almost a social event, wherein musicians get together and see how they gel as a rock group in a decidedly casual environment. Mutual admiration frequently breeds enterprises of this nature, such as Pollard's multitude of collaborations under names like The Keene Brothers, Cosmos and Airport 5.
As far as Jack White is concerned, the inception of The Dead Weather was most definitely sparked by the latter two scenarios. While the group is indeed a conglomerate of acquaintances coming together to enjoy some jam sessions, the band also afforded White the opportunity to experiment with his musical identity and produce something vastly different from anything he'd attempted before, be it with The White Stripes or The Raconteurs.
The origins of The Dead Weather are simple enough to ascertain. The Raconteurs and The Kills were touring together when White came down with a case of severe laryngitis. The Kills' vocalist, Alison Mosshart, acted as a stopgap substitute, forging a connection between the two groups that culminated in the founding of The Dead Weather.
Furthermore, The Queens Of Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita, had been staying with Jack White, and thus he and The Raconteurs' bassist Jack Lawrence were assimilated into the mix.
The resulting product is quite unlike anything any of The Dead Weather's members had created before. This new rock outfit eschews the tight, compact arrangements of bands like The White Stripes, instead relying on bluesy grooves that, at times, almost feel unfocused or aimless.
This penchant for unstructured, desultory jamming could constitute an egregious liability, but the band are far too gifted to allow that to happen. While The Dead Weather's songs are indeed often groove-oriented, their compositions are still studded with a number of catchy hooks to ensure that one's attention never strays from the material at hand.
Be it a clever riff or a memorable vocal hook, there's always something to dispel the impression that the band are simply meandering through jumbled, tuneless soundscapes. The melodies may not be as accessible or immediate as what one is accustomed to from artists like Jack White, but they're certainly present, and once they sink in they prove just as potent as anything else in White's repertoire.
In addition to an affinity for bluesy jamming The Dead Weather are also considerably darker and more menacing than the bulk of White's oeuvre. The songs are also very heavy, with a deep earthy rumble that injects an almost primal feel into the proceedings.
The Dead Weather certainly represent a unique turn in White's storied career. As far as side-projects are concerned, Broken Boy Soldiers was a chance to experiment in a poppier, almost psychedelic vein, while Consolers Of The Lonely had more of a hard rock slant without encroaching on the tried and true White Stripes formula. While both of these Raconteurs albums are essentially collaborations, they still depicted White in his usual role as lead guitarist and the primary face of the band.
As far as The Dead Weather are concerned, however, White and Mosshart are very much equals, and most surprisingly, as far as instruments are concerned, White has been relegated to the role of drummer for the first time since the creation of The White Stripes.
This isn't meant to diminish his importance in the band, however, as White's musical vision still informs much of the album. While he trades vocals with Mosshart he still co-writes most of the material, and furthermore his talent for drumming remains fully intact even after all these years of inaction.
The key element to an album like Horehound is songwriting, and in this regard the band seldom disappoint. A few numbers are simply too unstructured, and some judicious editing would have ameliorated songs like the otherwise strong opener 60 Feet Tall, but overall the album is of an exceptionally high caliber.
Highlights include the savage sadism of the single Hang You From The Heavens, the stellar rocker Treat Me Like Your Mother and the riff-driven classic Bone House. Elsewhere Dylan's New Pony gives the band a chance to show off their instrumental chops in a chaotic yet controlled jam, 3 Birds is a terrific instrumental, and the closer Will There Be Enough Water? is genuinely moving, a rarity for the emotionally distancing ensemble.
Rocking Horse and No Hassle Night boast more superb melodies, while the two solo spots are highly intriguing. Mosshart receives sole writing credit for the sultry and seductive So Far From Your Weapon, injecting a note of the sensual into the album's pervasive darkness, while White's composition I Cut Like A Buffalo is decidedly strange and, while hardly a masterpiece, is certainly novel enough to merit its position on the album.
The Dead Weather amply showcase sides of Jack White that had hitherto been imperceptible, and this fact alone makes Horehound vital for any fan of his past work. Beyond this, however, is the fact that the album is simply very strong, filled with infectious grooves supported by high quality hooks. While it may take time to adjust to the album's sprawling nature, in time one will appreciate this new style as something that differentiates The Dead Weather from The Kills, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Queens Of The Stone Age and any other group associated with this new, highly compelling musical vision.
Live albums can often be regarded as a status symbol, a validation of sorts indicating that a rock artist has amassed enough of a fanbase that his fans will follow him beyond conventional studio fare and into more specialized territory. Myriad groups buck this trend, with some rock outfits like Primus and Jane's Addiction having the hubris to begin their careers with a live album, but nonetheless the release of a live product can still be viewed as a coming-of-age ritual for some bands, concrete proof that they've truly 'made it.'
Thus it's strange that The White Stripes, unarguably behemoths on the stage of modern rock and roll, went over a decade without issuing a single live album. This could lead some to speculate that this was a symptom of quality-control, with the band waiting for a truly remarkable product to be ready before showing their hand on the live scene, and this may very well be true. If it is true, however, then Jack and Meg White are somewhat lacking when it comes to critical discernment.
In fact, there's ample evidence that The White Stripes are particularly proud of the 2007 tour of Canada from which Under Great White Northern Lights is derived, as they also released a DVD chronicling their above-the-border exploits. It's easy to see why they view these shows so highly: the fans were enthusiastic and receptive, flourishes like the use of bagpipes helped differentiate the band from other hard rock acts and there's little doubt that these concerts found the group in the prime of their careers. These factors all seem to lead to the conclusion that Under Great White Northern Lights is a great live album; sadly, this is not the case.
While the album may depict the band at the peak of their creative abilities, it also shows them succumb to nearly every self-indulgent excess and misguided impulse customarily associated with live products.
Jack White is, by and large, in poor form as a singer, spouting vocals even more exaggerated than those that one has come to anticipate from him. He also demonstrates an unhealthy leaning toward atonal outbursts, which see him come across as a poor man's Black Francis. This is particularly pronounced on tracks like the already dissonant The Union Forever, wherein his discordant vocals rises to headache-inducing heights.
The very presence of The Union Forever is emblematic of one of the album's other great failings, namely poor track selection. The studio cut of The Union Forever was already at the nadir of the band's canon, and pairing it with the similarly dissonant Ball And Biscuit lands the album in a slump that it's barely able to recover from. This is especially vexing given some of the puzzling omissions, like The Hardest Button To Button and Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground.
Other stereotypical live transgressions include audience participation, a staple of live albums that's always been anathema to me. While involving the audience makes for an exciting experience in person, it seldom translates into anything more than an irritation for the record-buying public. No one purchases an album to listen to an arena full of fans singing the refrain to I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, even when Jack White's vocals are at their very worst.
Under Great White Northern Lights is also woefully lacking in the surprise department. By and large the renditions on the album cleave rather closely to the originals, and when dramatic changes are made they're not always for the best. Transfiguring the compact adrenaline rush of Fell In Love With A Girl into a slow blues number is commendable in theory and even competent in execution, but it fails to live up to the original, a situation that's exacerbated by more grating audience interaction.
What's really most frustrating about the album, however, is that The White Stripes simply aren't an ideal live band. Their production has always been raw and energetic, and thus the transition to a live environment has little impact on the overall sound. The White Stripes aren't reborn in a live setting like The Who, nor do they defy expectations with innovative reworkings a la Bob Dylan.
One's natural assumption is that a hard rock group will inherently rock more in a live setting, but while that holds true in some cases, it's by no means a universal truth. The songs on Under Great White Northern Lights don't rock more than the originals, aren't more primal or energetic than the originals and ultimately just don't benefit at all from the live environment. The only noticeable difference is that the performances are somewhat sloppier, and this in no way ameliorates anything about the overall product.
Despite these myriad liabilities the album is still somewhat entertaining, simply because the quality of many of the songs is still evident, and little is tarnished by the live interpretations. The riff and vocals of Blue Orchid seem vaguely out of sync, but the track is still a satisfying rocker, while Icky Thump is still the same enjoyable riff-fest it's always been. Seven Nation Army is a suitable closer, and despite some issues with the vocals I'm Slowly Turning Into You remains a strong number.
Ultimately, however, Under Great White Northern Lights is a disappointing album. One would expect a group like The White Stripes to translate brilliantly into a live environment, but after nearly an hour of patient listening one will find that this simply never happens. There are certain elements that can make for a satisfying live album, like creative reimaginings of old classics, virtuoso instrumentation and greater rocking power, but all are conspicuously absent on Under Great White Northern Lights, and the result is a decidedly underwhelming experience.
It's difficult to ascertain precisely how adept Jack White is at multitasking. While one could surmise that White produced two consecutive Dead Weather albums in order to capitalize on the momentum generated by Horehound, one could also conclude that the White Stripes' frontman is easily distracted by new side projects and thus is incapable of judiciously allocating his time to his myriad musical endeavors.
In the long run, however, inferences pertaining to White's attention span prove irrelevant. What matters is that White invests tremendous passion and effort into each album he works on. Unlike rock artists who have transparent artistic priorities, dividing their creative energy based on clear band-hierarchies, White doesn't discriminate based upon which of his groups has attained marquee-status and which is a more niche rock outfit. The result is that White has yet to produce an album that isn't worthy of his name and reputation, making each installment in his growing discography an essential purchase for any fan of modern rock.
Despite the chronological proximity of the two Dead Weather albums, the band is in no danger of becoming overexposed. On the contrary, with Sea Of Cowards, The Dead Weather cement their status as one of the premier ensembles on the contemporary rock scene, having managed to eclipse their stellar debut with a brilliant sophomore effort.
By and large, the songs on Sea Of Cowards tend to be more compact and focused than the often desultory, sprawling fare found on Horehound. This doesn't mean, however, that the band has lost the alluring rawness, infectious, primal energy and enthralling minimalistic grooves that characterized their superb debut. If Sea Of Cowards can be said to be the more polished of The Dead Weather's opuses then one must keep in mind that that isn't really saying much.
The grooves on Sea Of Cowards may be somewhat more structured and coherent than the band's prior efforts, but this doesn't dilute the potency of The Dead Weather's ever tenebrous atmospherics, nor does it tone down or smooth over the group's signature apocalyptic textures and soundscapes.
Sea Of Cowards may feature more immediate hooks and melodies than its predecessor, but any album that opens with the lumbering, sludgy bassline of Blue Blood Blues and ends with the menacing mantra of Old Mary can hardly be called accessible, let alone commercial.
While The Dead Weather's work may invite comparisons to the likes of Joy Division, they're hardly a tribute band a la early Interpol. On both Horehound and Sea Of Cowards, The Dead Weather manage to firmly establish their own musical identity. From the group's lo-fi charm to their metallic heaviness to their dual onslaught of rock and blues to their hypnotic, muddy grooves, The Dead Weather have few analogues on the modern rock scene. While they may not scale the same heights as the likes of Ian Curtis' cult favorites, The Dead Weather fail to conform to the stereotypes for 'dark' rock groups. They're most assuredly not a self-indulgent Goth collective, nor are they a nihilistic industrial/metal hybrid. They're not angst-ridden, they eschew grunge clichés and there's far more intelligence and musical worth behind their material than a run-of-the-mill death-metal cadre bombarding the listener with an endless stream of heavy guitar tones and generic riffage.
One unforgivable oversight that even this review has perpetrated is to focus on Jack White at the expense of his profoundly gifted collaborators. Nearly every song is a joint effort both in terms of songwriting and performing, while the sensual vocals of Alison Mosshart are just as prevalent on the album as White's signature intonations. White may have the biggest name of the ensemble, but this shouldn't diminish the importance of his colleagues.
What's most important, of course, is the caliber of the songwriting, an area in which Sea Of Cowards truly excels. The aforementioned opener, Blue Blood Blues, immediately submerges the listener in the sea of sonic sludge that he'll drown in for the duration of the album, a fate far more pleasurable than one would initially expect upon reading about it. Amidst these waves of musical, metallic pressure are a plethora of catchy vocal hooks, powerful basslines and impressive riffage, which makes for an ideal opener and a minor masterpiece.
Hustle And Cuss preserves both the feel and atmosphere of Blue Blood Blues while still offering plenty of new tricks, but it's the subsequent track, The Difference Between Us, that truly elevates Sea Of Cowards to the next level. The best cut on the album, The Differences Between Us merges fascinating, despairing White/Mosshart harmonies, well-implemented keyboard work and impeccable guitar/bass interplay to create a caliginous classic that not only surpasses any track on Sea Of Cowards but the material from Horehound as well.
I'm Mad passes from viscerally unsettling minimalism to impressive guitar-pyrotechnics, Die By The Drop boasts a terrific refrain, I Can't Hear You is another moody marvel, and Gasoline is a punchy rocker. No Horse, Looking At The Invisible Man and Jawbreaker may essentially be more of the same, but that shouldn't detract from what are otherwise very strong tracks, while little can prepare one for the menace of Old Mary, complete with prayer samples and consummately haunting repetition.
Thus Sea Of Cowards is an excellent Dead Weather album, and this should in no way make it lesser than an excellent White Stripes or Raconteurs album. If White opts not to adhere to a predictable schedule with regards to his bands' releases then that's his prerogative, and I certainly won't complain if the end result is superb products like this one.