Tag Archives: Blues

The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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The Music of My 15 Year Old Self

Here’s a glimpse into the music I was listening to at 15.    It should be noted that I almost bought Pinkerton in October of 1996, only to buy Blues Traveler’s Save His Soul instead.  Damnit.

Blues Traveler

Blues Traveler’s Four was huge in 1994 (or at least I remember it being big.) On the radio domination of “Hook” and “Runaround” I bought the album at The Wall in one of Frederick’s malls.   To my surprise, the rest of the album was good.  Then in the summer of 1996, they released the live compilation Live From The Fall that I snatched up as soon as I saw it.  Not having been exposed to many jams bands – it was new sonic territory for me.  I didn’t know songs could go on 15 minutes and in retrospect, guitars could sound as masturbatory as that.   But at the time, Blues Traveler seemed awesome.  Luckily my Blues Traveler phase didn’t last too long.

Live


For a long time, I was obsessed with Throwing Copper. Sure Live had the big hits off the album – “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes” – but it was the small town anthem “Shit Towne” that grabbed me.  They were talking about my hometown! “Stage” was so raw and angry especially when Ed Kowalcyzk shouted, “c’mon motherfucker!” off the cuff.  And then there was the sheer poetry of “Pillar of Davidson”.  Too bad they threw it all away for  the craptacular Secret Samadhi.

The Who

No snarky comments here.  Though I don’t listen to The Who as much – for a brief period of time they really captured exactly what I was  feeling as a teenager.  In his own way, Pete Townshend is a great social commentator.  “My Generation” will always be adored by some kid who thinks that his or her elders don’t understand anything.  And “Substitute” remains the perfect soundtrack for a guy who knows his girlfriend is only dating him because she can’t find someone else.  I don’t remember how I got into The Who, but a good two years I listened to them every single day.  I finally saw them in 2007, and while it was awesome, it totally would have meant a lot more to them if I had seen them ten years before.

 

 

 

 

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A Week Full of Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”

Like most people, my initial thought the first time I heard this song was: “what the hell is this?”   It’s there’s a song that captures everything that Jimi Hendrix did – it’s perfectly achieved on this wah-wah soaked masterpiece. 

A friend of mine remarked that even 40 years later, “Voodoo Child” is among the heaviest things anyone’s ever put to record.  What sets “Voodoo Child” apart though, is how Hendrix is able to play the blues to logical extreme, be heavy and funky all in the same song.  There’s also a few occasions in the song where he does all three at the same time. 

“Voodoo Child” is the song that is guitar heroism at its apex.  No other human being has played better than this.  A little over a year before he recorded “Voodoo Child” Hendrix famously lit his guitar on fire during his performance at Monterary Pop.  “Voodoo Child” is creating the impossible with this song, and burning it down as he goes. 

The song itself also deals with destruction and creation.  “Well I stand up next to a mountain,” Hendrix begins.  “And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”  But there’s beauty after the mess: “I pick up all the pieces and make an island.  Maybe even raise a little sand.”   He’s sorry for taking up sweet time, but don’t worry he’ll give it back to us, “one of these days.” 

Near the end of the song, Hendrix offers a sort of goodbye: “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet ya in the next one.”  It’s unclear whether he meant that sincerely, or as a threat to watch out for what he was up to next – Hendrix was said to be moving in a different musical direction around the time of his death.  Either way, he wasn’t going to wait around.  “Don’t be late!” He implores. 

Check out “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”):

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