Thursday, October 11, 2012

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

On this live album, Jack White makes an addition to "The Union Forever," his song constructed entirely out of quotes from Citizen Kane, incorporating perhaps the best single line from the film: "It's no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money." This line rings especially true to me given what I was saying about Jack's solo debut earlier this week, how he managed to make a record people would want to hear without designing it as a record meant to be purely commercial. This guy has clearly always had his mind on more than merely taking from his audience's wallets. If he was just there to collect ticket fees, he probably would play his songs more faithfully to their studio recordings. Here is a live recording that does not merely contain a few rough edges. This live recording is constructed deliberately out of rough edges.

Live, the White Stripes played recklessly, like Jack's guitar was literally on fire and he needed to stamp it out with his fingers. That poor six-string is going to need trauma counseling after the way Jack treats it. In he moment, with the energy of a live presence, Jack finds new places in his songs to make them all raggedy and unconventional. Not only does his guitar wail out in pain, Jack himself screams like a maniac, possessed by the music rather than performing it. This is a double-faced album: it's unpolished, but it goes out of its way to revel in its lack of polish, makes a spectacle out of it.

While some songs are played with breakneck ferocity, others are transformed in other ways, like the abbreviated, altered, organ-based "Ball and Biscuit," arguably preferable to the original studio version. "Blue Orchid" is allowed to come alive in a way it didn't on Get Behind Me Satan, and they really bring the audience into the sinews of "I'm Slowly Turning Into You." Being that this was during the tour to promote Icky Thump, tracks from that album are the most faithful; the blemished twang of "300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues" is even better live with hardly a moment changed, and "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" is gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeous, there's "We're Going To Be Friends" and the always-showstopping cover of "Jolene." The harsher moments make the smoother ones that much better: the slowed-down version of "Fell In Love With a Girl," sounding like Joss Stone's cover, is another highlight. Ultimately, this winds up as a full-bodied performance that explores all the various extremes the band inhabited.

One of my favourite live moments on any album was on Nirvana's Live at Reading set, when they played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with their disdain for the hit well displayed, intro-ing it with Boston's "More Than A Feeling" and deliberately fumbling through it. Jack tests "Seven Nation Army," arguably his greatest creation (not necessarily his greatest song, but the work that will always loom largest) by taking it to its brink, turning it into a monster and then slaying it. If it were recorded that way in the first place, Elephant would not have been the blockbuster record it was, but to an eager crowd, it's irresistible. You buy a studio album because you like the songs, but you buy a live album because you like the artist.

Buy this album now: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

1 comment:

  1. Seeing the White Stripes live on that tour was a revelation for me, not just because of the adjustments to the music, but how the live performance recontextualizes the band itself. The easy joke with The White Stripes was always that Meg was a terrible drummer, a rehash of that old McCartney dick move by saying Ringo wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles. And on a dispassionate, objective level, that's true. Jack always insisted that Meg was integral to the band, however, and it was in live performances that this became evident. The flaw to the "Meg is terrible" argument is that it's the dispassionate one, because the band was all about passion and primal urges clashing against constraints - of structure, recording equipment, of anything you got.

    Seeing the band perform live ceased any mocking of Meg White that I ever did. Jack said she was integral to the band's nature, and it's the live show that proves it. In concert, Jack is a wild man, screaming and clawing and climbing. He's what you showed up for, but he's not what held the evening together: Meg was. No matter the theatrics and animalistic fury from the other part of the stage, there was Meg. Thump. Thumpthump. Thump. Never extravagant, frequently visibly disinterested, but steady and pounding away, tethering Jack to Earth to keep him from floating away. She gave Jack something to wail against and thus gave the band all its power. Her apparent boredom gave Jack's wildness something to fight. Meg, and Meg specifically, was necessary for the band's success, and it's never clearer in anything the band released than on Under the Great White Northern Lights.