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Rock and Roll Feature: Tribute to the White Stripes and Their Debut Album
This is the thirty-sixth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Now that the White Stripes have sadly called it quits, as a big fan, I wanted to take a moment to write a little tribute to this very unique duo and what is, barring a reunion, their legacy. What better way to do that then to go way back to 1999 and feature their debut album... the one simply called The White Stripes.
Formed on Bastille Day in 1997, the White Stripes were anything but your typical band. Within a restrictive style that is both creatively bursting with attitude and stripped down to it’s barest minimalism is where they made their mark, crafting a sound that can only be described as “Blues via the Stooges”. They were not the first punk blues band, nor were they the last. Their unique style, personae, stage presence and subtle yet stellar songwriting though, made them one of the best, breaking them not only out of their home town of Detroit, but also out of their own genre and into the mainstream.
I remember the exact moments I first heard the White Stripes and when I became completely engrossed with them. Although I believe I’ve told both stories multiple times before, I’ll tell them again as we reminisce.
The former was at roughly 3 in the morning while watching late night antenna TV. Apparently those Korean stations would switch to MTV2 around that time and so as someone with a passion for music i was drawn night after night to sit and watch. And sure enough, there was this strange music video done all in red and white Legos for a song maybe barely 2 minutes long at most.
That wasn’t the debut of the Stripes though. No, by that time they were breaking though to the mainstream. it wouldn’t be too much longer until they would release their fourth and would do a week long residency on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It was at that moment that Jack and Meg would take permanent residency amongst my other favorite bands.
I’m sure the fact that Jack played slide guitar on Conan’s desk during those performances made an impact, but I was sold from the first note. There was an intensity to every note... there weren’t really that many notes to be had... a rawness, a channeling of pure emotion that just changed my world.
Amazingly at that point I already had the White Stripes self titled debut album, but I guess just wasn't ready for it's awesomeness. After seeing the raw intensity that the duo had when playing live, suddenly that first album, in all it's bare minimalism, made sense to me... and it remains one of my favorites to this day.
Opening with the deep dark drum beats and guitar raunch of “Jimmy the Exploder” it's apparent that the Stripes are channeling the Stooges and all the great garage rock bands of history rolled into one. The guitar sound is massive and Jack howls his vocals over the top like no other. In one song the Stripes issue a wake up call to rock and roll... a reminder that it's supposed to be about passion and soul.
That's passion and soul with a heavy respect for where it all started too and nowhere is that more important than with their cover of the Robert Johnson classic: “Stop Breaking Down” complete worthy amounts of intensity and screeching slide guitar goodness. Although it's a cover, Jack and Meg make it their own like no other, sounding natural and perfectly in tune with the rest of their repertoire.
“The Big Three Killed My Baby”, complete with it's social comment lyrics, massive guitar explosion even surpassing the previous two songs, is actually one of my all time favorite White Stripes songs. There's just something in it's simplicity and Jacks tortured screams that embodies everything I love about rock and roll. They change it up on “Suzy Lee” though, taking on a slightly slower blues grind instead. It works though, as does the acoustic, folksy stomp of “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” sounding straight out of the southern back country with a slight detour through Detroit.
“Wasting My Time” is another personal favorite of mine. I love the way the guitar's crash at key moments, putting such emphasis on Jack's lyrics. The Stripes take this one to the next level though when they play it live... just massively powerful. Same for the grinding menace of “Cannon”, livened up in this recording by transitioning into the gospel, blues stomp of “John the Revelator”, a song originally written by some good friends of Jack and Meg, the duo who would later become the Soledad Brothers. It's a song that was also regularly improvised into the Stripes live sets with spectacular results.
“Astro” is pure Stooges style garage rock. Raunchy, raw and pulsing with a great grinding beat and guitar riff. Although on first glance straight forward and simplistic, this is another that morphed into something more live. It's simplicity is also part of it's charm... no pretense, just rock and roll straight up. And it continues with the howling feedback and roaring riff of “Broken Bricks”. I especially like the bell part in this song. I don't know why, it just seems like the perfect touch for some reason.
“When I Hear My Name” is up there with “The Big Three Killed My Baby” for me. Raw, raunching and straight forward, it's Jack's pushed vocals that really make it, not to mention the killer guitar work throughout that hints at just how amazing a gutiarist Jack White really is. “Do” literally is my second favorite White Stripes songs of all time (the first is “Truth Doesn't Make a Noise” but that's not on this album). With great subtle guitar work and passionate lyrics it's one of the White Stripes masterpieces in my mind.
You could say the same thing about “Screwdriver”... a song literally written about screwdriver that was in the Stripes rehearsal space or garage or something if I remember the back story. A rocker with more great guitar work, this one to me just screams the Stooges... the riff could have been a Stooges riff if it was written some 30 years earlier... but of course Jack and Meg take it their own direction. Just a great rock and roll song all around.
Another cover, this time of Bob Dylan's “One More Cup of Coffee” follows, changing up the pace a bit. The Stripes take this one is a bit of a bluesier, darker direction than the original, but it's absolutely stellar all the same, perfectly capturing the emotional charge of the lyrics. I especially love the guitar work on this track. I'm not sure why exactly, but the tone and timbre of the guitar, and Jack's playing are subtle, but still just raw enough to grind just a little bit and turn up the intensity... great stuff.
Both “Little People” and “Slicker Drips” are grinding dark slow rockers... the latter building speed as it goes. Both are intense, but filled with plenty of Stripes attitude. The duo leave their own stamp of the traditional “St James Infirmary Blues” as well, sort of crossing a smoky dive bar with a 40s piano jazz. It may sound like an odd combination for such a proto punk band, but for whatever reason it works and sounds right in line with their other tracks and now looking back seems to foreshadow some of the bands later more piano driven works.
They close out the album with a great little slow burner, “I Fought Piranhas”. Another personal favorite with great subtle guitar work, both slide and regular, it just seems to sum up the album and this band quite well... a nice bluesy coda to the rockers and the attitude, but also a nice tribute to how it all began back with the blues in the first place.
Looking back, this album feel like the beginning of a legacy, not just another album. That's an interesting lens to view this work through actually as it has such a spontaneous feel... in fact I'm sure it was written and recorded very quickly. All of this band's albums feel that way, but this one more so than the rest. It's both a humble beginning and an epic one as all of the greatness Jack and Meg would accomplish, the roots of all of it, their sound, style, attitude and songwriting, even their strict red, white and black color scheme can be seen here. It's also just a great little rock and roll album though... as all great albums are.
If you've never really listened to the White Stripes now is as good a time as any to check them out. You might find they're completely unlike what you expected, or maybe not. Their music is firmly entrenched in the garage rock, punk blues scenes but with a style and attitude all it's own. This, their debut album is as great a representation of that as any and I think you'll dig it.
If you're a longtime White Stripes fan like me, then this month in honor of their legacy and the fact that they're no longer going to be recording music and touring, take a listen to their debut album. The White Stripes is a great Stripes album, and an all around great and truly unique rock and roll album.
This piece is dedicated to Jack and Meg White... the White Stripes. Thank you for all your amazing music and performances over the years. Although we're saddened by the news that you have decided to disband, I'm sure all of us fans wish you the best of luck in all of your future artistic pursuits.
You can find this album from Amazon here: The White Stripes
And can once again be bought on vinyl from Third Man Records here: http://store.thirdmanrecords.com/thewhitestripes-selftitled12vinyl.aspx