For this month's Band of the Month, we're back in the 21st century, and the ubiquitous (it sometimes seems) Jack White - mainly for the White Stripes, but he hasn't really slacked off in his other bands. He has been wonderfully prolific - a dozen or so records, with various bands, along with work with other people. And it's all fine stuff - all distinctly his, but also bringing in the personalities and talents of his collaborators. The White Stripes sound like the Raconteurs - but not exactly; the Dead Weather offers a different twist - a different voice; his solo records bring in some new sounds - in fact, it's the sound that varies the most among them, the instrumentation, sometimes the style. There's continuity across all his work, but he still always seems to be evolving - trying new sounds, new styles - every record is rewarding.
Thinking about this essay, I thought of the ways he is like other favorites of mine. Iv'e had Prince on the mind - and White's record in the past decade or so reminds me of Prince in the 80s (and beyond). It is interesting: they share a work ethic - I'm not sure how many artists are as committed to getting a record out every year as White has been in that time. He can work like Prince - playing all the instruments, playing different instruments in different combos. At the same time, he's involved with other artists - all those collaborations, all his effort to work with other people. He's versatile - he's committed to controlling his art - to building the infrastructure for his creativity... He might not be the musical genius Prince was, especially as a musician - but he is a very interesting musician, and s superb song-writer, who milks rich veins of American songwriting styles. Country, blues, pop, rock, gospel, folk - he plays with them all, very successfully. He is a kind of one man industry.... He has in common with Nick Cave too - who's also put out a wealth of material throughout his career, still going strong; who's also slipped around through a variety of styles, without really abandoning his base skills. And he sometimes reminds me of Cave as a songwriter - the way he writes fiction, stories - characters who aren't necessarily him. The hints of gods and devils lurking in those songs. And a kind of characteristic hardness - he might have the best body of last lines to songs in the business:
"if there's anything good about me, I'm the only one who knows"
"not one single person on god's golden shore is entitled to one single thing; we don't deserve a single damn thing"
"Worse than All Your Dreams Could Ever Make Me"
"I never said I would throw my jacket in the mud for you, but my father gave it to me so maybe I could carry you, then you said you almost dropped me so then I did, and I got mud on my shoes"
"this kind of things must be important because somebody ripped out my page in your telephone book"
All right. He has had a pretty good career, beginning to the present, and still going strong - but I can't deny that he was particularly great at the beginning. When it was them, not him, too - the later stuff, the other projects, are fantastic, but he hasn't really matched the impact of the White Stripes. I heard the first couple records, liked them, though I didn't completely fall for them - then White Blood Cells came out, and that did it. It was very exciting - that stripped down style, the endlessly catchy tunes, the clever words - I liked the poppier garage sound more than their earlier bluesier sound, it felt more open, more adventurous, freer - I was sold. And you can guess from the comments above, I continued to enjoy their music as they got even more expansive - I like bands with wide tastes in music, and was very happy to follow them into their rockier moments, their ballads, the country, the folk, as well as the blues. And though Jack continues to work similar styles since, I don't know if he has ever quite been able to match the direct appeal of the Stripes. Simple, direct rhythms, his straightforward riffs, warped and twisted around - nothing else quite works that well. Meg focused the music, and focused him. They were a truly great band.
All right: let's do the lists. Here, to start, a White Stripes Top Ten:
1. The Same Boy You've Always Known
2. Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly worn
3. I Want to be the Boy
4. As Ugly as I Seem
5. I'm Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman
6. 300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues
7. Icky Thump
8. Seven Nation Army
9. we're Going to Be Friends
10. The Big Three Killed My Baby
And Then, an other Jack White top 5:
1. These Stones Will Shout - Raconteurs
2. Portland Oregon - with Loretta Lynn
3. So Far from Your Weapon - Dead Weather
4. Top Yourself - Raconteurs
5. Entitlement - Solo
And some video: Start with a classic White Stripes performance of Same Boy You're Always Known:
And later, acoustic and intense, Ugly as I seem, on Charlie Rose:
Here's Jack playing Seven Nation Army, with Jimmy Page and The Edge from the This Might Get Loud documentary. The more I think about that film, the more inspired the choices seem: it's not just that the three guitarists cover three generations, or even that they are three very fine purveyors of The Riff - it's that they are so different. Page, the virtuoso, the session genius, able to play anything, the improvisor, the excessive one; The Edge, the minimalist, the rhythm guitarist, the one relying on his effects almost more than his playing - building riffs out of that; and White - the songwriter - never quite so virtuosic as Page, but willing to solo, make noise, risk excess (though more economical) - but more than that, and more than the other two - making his musicianship always the servant of his songwriting. He is a very good guitarist, but he is a musician and songwriter first - he can shift instruments if it works better, he keeps the pyrotechnics tied to the song. They bounce off one another - each working differently, a fact that sometimes comes through in the movie, but mostly dawns on you later. It's a neat film, and that dynamic is part of it...
And a clip of The Raconteurs:
Here's drummer Jack, with the Dead Weather:
And singing with Loretta Lynn:
And finally some blues - St. James Infirmary - can't find a good performance clip, so here's a Betty Boop cartoon someone matched to the song: