Thanks to my good friends at Randomville, I had the opportunity to interview hip-hop artist Black Milk who recently collaborated with Jack White on the 7 inch single “Brain” and “Royal Mega”.
Check out the interview over at Randomville.
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.
Today, The White Stripes announced that they are breaking up. While I admit that I’ve gotten tired of them (I thought both Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump were lukewarm at best and the live show I saw remains one of the worst I’ve seen for various reasons – check back later in the week for an explanation and my list of worst concerts) Elephant, was and remains a brilliant record.
I didn’t know much about The White Stripes prior to Elephant, but the pre-release buzz surrounding the album seemed to suggest it would be special. Most critics concluded that the album might as well come packaged with a sticker on the sleeve with the words: “instant classic”.
I was a junior in college when Elephant came out. At the time, my campus seemed divided on those that opposed the war, and those in favor. Elephant not only provided an escape, but it demanded it. The guitar-blast after the second verse of “Seven Nation Army” was like a flood-gate. It was old-school blues, but contemporary. Past and present seemed to collide as the song faked a bass-line, that was actually a guitar. That wall of noise provided said more than any protest song could at the time, no matter what Conor Oberst thought. On “Black Math”, Jack White may have sung like Robert Plant, but the blistering guitar solo was more akin to the Velvet Underground’s noisy jams on such songs as “What Goes On”.
That summer when I went to Italy, I probably burnt a hole in my copy of Elephant from listening to it non-stop as we took weekends bus trips. “You Got Her in Your Pocket” is one of the quieter moments on the record, but its also one of the few times where Jack White puts lays off the noise, and reveals a haunting ballad thats akin to The Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb”. The rest of the biting lyrics I’ve always been partial to the line, “And in your own mind you’re lucky just enough to know her”.
Long live Elephant.
After reading Paul Trynka’s Iggy: Open Up and Bleed, I was struck by his observation that Pop’s first solo album The Idiot is more respected than loved. I thought about the statement for a bit, concluding The Idiot is a far more interesting album if you look at its influence as a pre-cursor to the new-wave movement. You can hear the ghost of The Idiot in much of Joy Division’s work (indeed Ian Curtis had the album in his record player when he hanged himself.) Just as The Stooges’ stripped down had paved the wave for punk years earlier, it’s only natural that their lead singer would create a work that would signify the death of punk, just as it was starting.
But I don’t really listen to The Idiot very much – I tend to listen to Lust For Life or any of the Stooges albums. But this got me thinking: what other albums do I respect, but don’t love?
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changing
Obviously, this is an important record. It’s Dylan at the height of his protest-era. The title track is among his best, and will always be immortalized as an anthem for “the people” frustrated at the government. The Times They Are A-Changing works extremely well as a protest album, but that is also it’s major flaw. For me, Dylan’s albums have always been varied but The Times They Are A-Changing is a little too one dimensional in its attack on the establishment. It almost seems like a slight step backward after the masterpiece of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which found Dylan humorous, angry, and sad.
The Clash – Sandinista!
It’s easy to make a snide comment about the album triple album monster that is Sandinista! I once commented it was ironic that for a band that bitched about prog-rock, they made one of the most pretentious albums of all time. I don’t entirely take back that statement, but I’ve grown to appreciate Sandinista! more in recent years. This is the sound of a band taking on every single genre of music (with mostly mixed results.) There a few gems – “Charlie Don’t Surf”, “Somebody Got Murdered”, and “The Call-Up”. But what other band besides The Clash would dare put out a 36 track album and weave their royalty fee so it would be priced at lower rate?
M.I.A. – Kala
I actually bought this album before “Paper Planes” blew up all over the charts due to the glowing reviews it got. I listened to it a few times and forgot about it. It’s an interesting album – full of samples from The Clash (“Paper Planes”) and the Pixies (“20 Dollar”) and setting third world music to a hip-hop beat. Perhaps Kala will be seen as a water-mark for music in a few years. For now my consensus is that it sounds awesome when you’re listening to it, but except for “Paper Planes” I couldn’t tell you how any of the songs go.
Beck – Odelay
One of the defining albums of the 90s for sure, but I’m not sure it’s aged well. Its reliance sound relies on a collage of sounds, it seems stuck in the late 90’s. Like Kala it sounds awesome, but too often I find Beck is so full of ideas that he incorporates as much as he can into one song – “Hotwax” and “Where It’s At” for instance. And “Where It’s At” mock-rap just sounds embarrassing 14 years later. A great product of its time, but ultimately not timeless.
The White Stripes – Elephant
This album used to be on the “love” list actually. “Seven Nation Army” remains of the best guitar-heavy singles of all time. It also was inventive – the guitar sounded like a bass, and its hook wasn’t a vocal melody but rather a hypnotic guitar line. If I complained Odelay was too scatter-shot, Elephant sounds too focused even while the songs rock. Jack White wanted to achieve his own place in rock history with Elephant by making a modern days blues record. But with the exception of “Seven Nation Army”, he failed to add bring anything new to the table.
What albums do you respect, but don’t love?