Quick, let’s play a word-association game. I’ll say the name of a person and you say the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Okay, here goes:
Let me guess, you said The White Stripes. That’s what White is best known for, the phenomenal band that took off like crazy in the late 1990’s, but there’s way more to him than that. I saw a bumper sticker once that said “God is too big to fit inside one religion.” That’s Jack White in a nutshell: far too big to fit inside any one musical genre or style, and those of us who worship at the altar of his guitar know where to find salvation.
From his early punkabilly days in The Upholsterers and 2 Star Tabernacle to his work with the Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, Jack White is a study in musical evolution and adaptation. He can cover Dolly Parton and fire off machine gun riffs, screaming lyrics like a burnt black smokestack and it’s as if he breathes the music; there is nothing contrived or put-together here. Jack White simply is the music he makes. You can have your Justins, with their perfect, just-so hair and pre-adolescent voices, your pop stars and emo kids, all starched denim and prefabricated angst. I’ll take my music with a shot of Jack-raw, pure, and with just the right amount of burn going down.
The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather are probably the best thing to happen to rock n’ roll music this decade. Along with bands like Kings of Leon, Jack White’s latest projects are threatening to resurrect good old-fashioned gritty, real rock music and knock those pansy-ass pop stars off their plastic pedestals.
In The Raconteurs, White teams up with master lyricist Brendan Benson to create a sound that blends traces of folk and alt-country with white-boy blues and poetry; the result is something like Jeff Buckley crawling drunk and jaded into a bar with Jeff Beck on the jukebox and a smooth jazz band warming up on stage. Shades of 70’s arena rock creep into the songs and hide away between the piano notes and even though the songs are new, they somehow feel nostalgic. Benson and White trade off on lead vocals and back each other so well you’d think their vocal chords had somehow been spawned from opposite sides of the same musical zygote. And the lyrics… oh, god, the lyrics in these songs: every song is an old friend talking to you over a beer on the back porch, bare feet propped up on the rail and the sun on your face like summer is never going to end. “Many Shades of Black” will have you nodding your head in commiseration as Benson walks you through the weary end of a relationship beyond repair; “Carolina Drama” is a rousing tale of Southern dysfunction steeped in gin and milk; “Store Bought Bones” takes a dip into psychedelia and comes up soaked in grime.
In 2009, Jack White brought us to our collective knees with the release of “Horehound,” his first studio album with The Dead Weather. Vocalist Alison Mosshart (you know her from The Kills and for providing backing vocals on Placebo’s stunning “Meds, among other things) has a voice that seems to come from some place inside that the rest of us only wish we had, and White’s wailing guitar provides the perfect backdrop. As he does with the Raconteurs, White steps up to the mike to provide lead vocals on a few songs and his deadpan drawl is nothing short of perfect. The Dead Weather are like that band you hear walking up the street-the one that captures you on the sidewalk and pulls you into the bar to listen and when it’s over you stay there for a while hoping it’s not really over. There are no poppy love songs here, no meandering walks into sentiment, only pure, raw, grab-you-by-the-hair-and-scream emotion and power. Mosshart calls out every slack-jawed, excuse-making boyfriend in “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” without delving into that tedious place of inflated ego that’s become so common in the bad boyfriend song. It’s not that she’s a goddess or some kind of martyr; she just wants you to straighten the hell up and act right. “Will There Be Enough Water” is what music would sound like if Janis Joplin’s soul was injected into ’77 era ZZ Top and took a long dip in the Muddy Waters, and you want to just lie back and let it wash over you. The release of “Sea of Cowards” in 2010 gave us one more reason to believe that Jack White is something more than man and that everything he touches turns to bliss. “Gasoline” is without a doubt one of the best love songs ever recorded. No one but White and Mosshart could have pulled this one off: the whole song absolutely reeks of sex, and not in a hurried, back-seat kind of way. The vocals, the guitar, everything builds to a crescendo and when Mosshart screams “I don’t want a sweetheart; I want a machine!” it’sall you can do not to put the song on repeat and head out to find some gasoline of your own. There is nothing on this album that’s less than amazing; from the maniacally controlled glee of “I’m Mad” to the first single, “Die By the Drop” to my personal favorite, the eerie, almost hymnal “Old Mary,” the album proves that Jack White doesn’t get tired, he’ll never get boring, and as long as he’s around and has these incredibly talented musicians to work with, rock and roll will never die.
If you’re ready to look beyond the Stripes into the vast, magical, maniacal universe Jack White has crafted for you, here’s a good start–look up these songs, turn your speakers wide open and let the ride begin.
The Upholsterers: Apple of My Eye
2 Star Tabernacle: So Long Cruel World
Who’s to Say
Worst Day of My Life
The Raconteurs: Store Bought Bones
You Don’t Understand Me
Many Shades of Black
The Dead Weather: 60 Feet Tall
Treat Me Like Your Mother
I Cut Like a Buffalo
I Can’t Hear You