Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career

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I sometimes wonder if I’d have ever discovered any new music after the turn of the millennium if I hadn’t met the Rock Chick. I could see myself today, twenty years down the road, still thinking Pearl Jam was the last great band to emerge. While she reconnected me with bands I was already into like AC/DC, Green Day and Motley Crue, she also brought me out of my rock and roll exile and turned me onto new bands as well. For a very brief time we had the illegal download site Limewire at our disposal. Limewire was like the early Napster, basic file sharing. It was the Rock Chick who downloaded Limewire… at first my response was, “You kids and your fancy apps,” but once I started finding rare, hard to find b-sides it was like giving an addict the keys to the pharmacy. I stopped and deleted Limewire after I heard R.E.M.’s Mike Mills say that Napster/Limewire was tantamount to going down the local record shop and shoplifting their latest CD. Michael Stipe said he didn’t care, but I still didn’t feel good about it. In my defense, I only used Limewire in the same way I use Spotify today – to discover new music and then immediately purchase the stuff I liked. Still, it wasn’t cool. And I realize the difference between Spotify and Limewire… I pay for Spotify.

It was late 2001 or maybe even early 2002 when I saw this strange band, it was just a duo actually, the White Stripes on the MTV video awards show, if my memory serves me (and it rarely does these days). They were the final live performance on the show and I recall a bunch of balloons fell on them or a bunch of people rushed the stage. I noticed there was a woman on drums. I was intrigued. I checked out what I’d heard were the hits – “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” At the time the rock intelligentsia were hailing a new era of “garage rock” (that never really materialized). After doing some discovery over on Limewire, I realized that maybe these White Stripes were what they were talking about. They not only rocked but they could go acoustic like they do on “We’re Going To Be Friends” a track that immediately resonated with me. I quickly went out and purchased what I soon found out was their third LP, White Blood Cells. I was immediately taken with these guys. It’s quite an album.

Jack White was the singer/guitarist/keyboardist and songwriter. He is one of the most gifted guitar players not only of his generation but perhaps ever. I kept extolling his amazing guitar skills to my a friend of mine. It wasn’t until he saw Jack solo that he started comparing him to Hendrix. I was like, dude, I’ve been talking about this guy for 15 years. The drummer, Meg White, who Jack was introducing as his sister at the time was actually his ex-wife. Jack said he came up with the “sister” thing to avoid any Fleetwood Mac type drama. Much has been made of Meg White’s cavewoman style of drumming but I think she’s fabulous. She hits those skins like she’s mad at ’em. Her very basic drumming is, in my opinion, what allowed Jack White to soar on guitar. They call what Social Distortion does, combining country influences with punk rock, “cow punk.” With the White Stripes there was real strong blues influence/vibe to go with the punk or garage rock ethos they had. At the time I was describing them as blues punk or punk blues, whichever you’re comfortable with. As longtime readers know, I love the blues so it was natural I’d love the White Stripes.

In early 2003 the Stripes dropped their fourth album Elephant. While White Blood Cells broke them to a wider audience, it was Elephant‘s first single, “Seven Nation Army” that really made them stars. It’s an epic rock track and it was literally everywhere. I bought that album the day it came out. That tour was to be my first time to see the White Stripes. On June 28th of 2003 they played this smallish hall over in Kansas City, Kansas… Memorial Hall. Oh my god they were absolutely fantastic that night. They had a big body guard in a three-piece suit escort them onto the stage. They opened with “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and from there they were off. Jack White hopped around the stage like a bunny on meth. He’d come to the front of the stage and sing and them bounce back to the drum kit where he and Meg would jam. I swear Meg was hitting the drums so hard she was levitating off her seat. Three or four tracks in they played a Dolly Parton track, “Jolene.” I turned the Rock Chick and said, “pinch me, am I dreaming?” At one point Jack pulled out a battered, old, grey wide body guitar and played the fiercest blues licks I’d ever heard. The track was “Death Letter,” a song I discovered the next day when I went out and bought their second – and in my opinion their best – album De Stijl. After that amazing show it’s a wonder I didn’t hang a poster of them on my wall like I was  junior high kid. 

Every two years they’d put out a new album and I would snap it up the day it came out. Both Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump were triumphs that saw them stretching out their trademark blues punk sound. I got to see them a second time on the Get Behind Me Satan tour, this time at the slightly larger venue, Starlight Theater. Jack was dressed as a matador. I was in the fifth row and its one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. They played over thirty songs that night. Seeing Meg White up close left me smitten… I’ve always been susceptible to rock and roll crushes. She didn’t sing at this show like she did the first time I saw them but she made her presence known. They had a very charismatic stage presence. 

Sadly, after Icky Thump the White Stripes didn’t tour extensively. They played a handful of shows at weird locations. I want to say they filmed it for a documentary I remember seeing late at night. It was said that Meg didn’t want to tour. She’d grown tired of the road. At the time she’d done a little modeling and had gotten married. I think the rock and roll life and being Jack’s sidekick had lost its allure. After releasing a great little gem of a live album Under Great Northern Lights the White Stripes called it quits. Meg has become reclusive. I have often said in these pages and it bears repeating – come back Meg, please. The world needs the White Stripes. I love what Jack does with the Raconteurs and solo but you’ll never find a band as purely bad ass as the White Stripes. 

I can’t believe it’s been 13 years since the White Stripes last studio album. I feel like the Stripes were big but as they never played the big arenas or stadiums I wonder how big they really were. I own every album they put out but how many people do? I fear that if you’re a little older you may have missed out on this supernova of a band. Jack White has put together what I can only describe as a lovingly curated collection of their “best of” on the newly released The White Stripes Greatest Hits. I don’t usually write about “greatest hits” packages but there are a lot of iconic ones out there. I think this album will be on that list of super greatest hits albums out there. If you aren’t a White Stripes fanatic like me, this Greatest Hits package is the perfect introduction to their catalog. I love that Jack spread the 26 tracks on this album evenly over their six studio records. Their debut The White Stripes which is a really raw and primal album – it’s so garage rocky that you can almost smell oil and gasoline when you play it – is represented with as many songs as Elephant or Icky Thump. This is truly a great retrospective look at their catalog. There are two tracks that weren’t on albums, “Jolene” and “Let’s Shake Hands.” 

I love that the set opens with “Let’s Shake Hands,” which in non pandemic times was what you did when you met someone. It’s like Jack saying, “nice to meet you.” The second track establishes these guys as Detroit rockers with “The Big Three Killed My Baby” from their debut. What a great start! The epic rocking big hits are all here like “Seven Nation Army” (that ends the album), “Icky Thump” and “Blue Orchid.” There are quieter acoustic moments like “We’re Going to Be Friends” and their trade mark bluesy romps like “Ball And A Biscuit,” “Death Letter” and “I Fought Piranhas.” It’s safe to say that everything the White Stripe do well is represented on this greatest hits package. Listening to it just brings it home. 

Again, if you missed these guys in the early 2000s or you never paused to pick up their albums this is the perfect way to start listening to the White Stripes. I literally own every single song on this package and you should to. This album would be a perfect primer for a college level Rock And Roll 101 class. Turn this one up loud. 

Cheers! 

“City Lights” – Single From The White Stripes/Jack White “Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016”

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As anybody whose read B&V before knows, I’m a huge fan of archival releases. If an artist has anything in the vault, I’m typically interested. Be it Bob Dylan’s official “Bootleg” releases, Springsteen’s “Tracks” or Van Morrison’s “Philosopher’s Stone,” count me in. Sometimes there’s a hidden gem in there, something the artist for whatever odd reason decided not to release. Maybe it didn’t fit the album it was recorded for. Musicians, what are you gonna do? If there’s a rare B-side tucked away in there, count me in…”what? there’s an acoustic demo with a saxophone… shit I’ve gotta have that.” I think the thing that draws me in the most when an artist opens up the vaults and releases stuff from their archives is that it many times provides an insight into their creative process. Of course, the Rock Chick says I’m just a obsessive compulsive “completist.” Which, sadly, may also be true.

With that as a backdrop, it probably comes as no surprise that when I heard Jack White was releasing something called “Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016” that I’d be forced to investigate. I’m a huge Jack White fan. I think of the White Stripes as one of the really great bands of all time. Their fusion of punk and blues was something I didn’t think was possible. I was lucky enough to see them on the “Elephant” tour (and several others) and Jack White simply amazed me with his energy and his lead guitar/keyboards/vocals. I had a buddy who saw him on his last solo tour and he compared it to seeing Hendrix (not that my buddy ever saw Hendrix, but he was that impressed with Jack’s guitar playing)… high praise indeed. I even followed Jack to the Raconteurs but I was only really interested in the tracks where he was the lead singer. “Steady As She Goes,” and “Blue Veins” from the first album and “Carolina Drama” from their second record stand out amongst his best. The Rock Chick dug the Dead Weather where Jack supposedly only played drums, and did some limited vocals, and I liked those tunes too. Jack is so charismatic that he’s going to pull the focus in any band he’s in.

With all that guitar hero talk it’s often easy to forget that the White Stripes and Jack’s solo stuff also has a strong acoustic element. “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends” immediately spring to minds as Stripes’ classics. “Love Interruption” has some nice acoustic work over some groovy keyboards. After thinking about those tunes, the whole “Acoustic Recordings” concept started to make sense to me.

The album isn’t released until September 9th but I’ve perused the song list. Unless these are all “alternative” versions, the songs on disc one mostly look like previously released songs. Meaning this is just a way of packaging up the acoustic stuff, no revelations to be found. The second disc looks like it has more acoustic demo/alternative mix stuff on it. We’ll just have to wait and see when the disc comes out.

However, until that time, we do have one song, billed to The White Stripes and Jack White that has been released, “City Lights.” I didn’t recognize the song but Jack was kind enough to add “Previously Unreleased” to the title to help tip me off it was something from the vaults. It’s all acoustic guitar and Jack singing in a minor falsetto. There is some light percussion, but I don’t know (based on the dual billing White Stripes/Jack White) if that is the mysterious Meg White playing the shaker? Call it my Sunday night mood, but there is something about Jack’s acoustic strumming on this song that recalls Led Zeppelin III but that may be the wine talking… It’s a quiet number that finds Jack in a somber mood. It is heavy on their folksy side, perhaps that’s what made me think of the acoustic side of Zeppelin… I almost wonder if this is a plea to Meg to return to the band when he sings, “every move suspends an action, any attempt to engage will push away, what you want becomes a magnet, opposing poles, never meeting.”  I love the imagery of the singer being on a plane headed toward someone… powerful stuff.

“City Lights” is a very good song from Jack White. It makes me hope there are some more alternative mixes/versions on “Acoustic Recordings” to explore. I certainly have something to look forward to on September 9th now…

Cheers!