Who could have imagined that the squirmy 22-year-old, sheepishly peering down the camera’s lens on the cover of The White Stripes’ self titled debut, was destined to become the 21st century’s premier guitar god? To this day, with his ascendancy entirely assured, and with thousands of headline gigs behind him, Jack White still looks as squeamishly out of place as ever. Even when a jam-packed field full of rapturous adoring fans are cheering him on, White feels more at home turning his back and jamming in a tight corner next to his drummer.
Jack may be the same awkward pale-faced eccentric who first peeked his head above the parapet of anonymity in 1997, but as an artist he’s taken improbably large strides. The harsh strictures of The White Stripes while thrilling, seemed destined to constrain White in those early years, but over time he blossomed into a studio maverick experimenting with marimbas, prog riffs, sinister folk and seemingly everything in between. Today, as Jack White’s quirkily vengeful Blunderbus tops the charts, Guitar Planet reflects on the ever-evolving career of the 21st century guitar icon.
Jack White and his “sister” (ex-wife) Meg might not have looked the part in 1997, but for two artists who appeared so uncomfortable and disinterested in superstardom, they certainly understood aesthetics. The White Stripes were less a band and a more of a precision-engineered movement, with contradiction at its very core. The music seemed wild, unrehearsed and barely held together, but it was the product of a strict garage-rock obsession. Minimalist in the extreme, the duo’s marriage of thudding simplistic drumming and ear-piercing riffs were harshly contained.
The band recorded on vintage equipment at extreme speed, and their sound was defined by its sheer rawness. The look was equally strict – exclusively red, white, and black. There was no room for deviation. De Stijl was more than a cool album title; The Stripes embodied the seamless utopian minimalism of Piet Mondrian. Jack White was never streamlined like a classic De Stijl piece. The Stripes’ music was far too wild for that, but their obsession with precision and the force of minimal elements over the weight of maximalist excess, reflected the great artists’ powerfully stark and striking designs. The economical strength of simplicity overawed flabby indulgence, as “The Big Three Killed My Baby”, and later “The Hardest Button To Button”, showcased the power of simple repetition.
The White Stripes’ debut was a juggernaut, a crushing assault of blues rock primitivism; a tribute to the grind of Detroit and the great bluesmen of the past, Robert Johnson and Son House. De Stijl (2000), the band’s second album, advanced The Stripes’ sound and perfectly realised White’s vision. From the immaculate artwork to the harsh jumps and juxtaposition of the album, De Stijl was tightly contained and yet utterly explosive.
The world conquering brilliance and perplexing insanity of the White Stripes was captured on the album’s first two tracks. “You’re Pretty Good Looking” was a sweet retro-rock jaunt which highlighted White’s flair for invasive melodies and cute verging on malevolent hooks (“your pretty good looking, for a girl”). “Hello Operator”, on the other hand, was a mammoth anthem. It smashed the listener in the face with its sheer heaviness. Meg wallops the skin of her drums while Jack unleashes a devastating onslaught that sounds almost completely improvised, as if the entire riff is careening out of control. The vocals were a cryptic forerunner of White’s haunting enigmatic style, as he dementedly howled: “Find A Canary, A Bird To Bring My Message Home, Carry My Obituary, My Coffin Doesn’t Have A Phone”.
Third album, White Blood Cells, cemented White’s status as the world’s most exciting guitarist. Rock was regaining its place in the public’s heart as The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Libertines, and Interpol launched a full-blown garage rock revival, but there was one slight problem. None of these new bands really played guitar. They all favoured minimalism but found no room for slamming solos. Jack White seemingly quenched this thirst for guttural guitar rock giving the emerging scene the axe man it desperately needed.
Jack understood the value of brevity; his first great hit “Fell In Love With A Girl” was tantalizingly short. Packing everything it could into 110 seconds, the track delivered on all of De Stijl’s rough and ready promises. The riff was so perfect that every young guitarist now learns it right after they’ve tackled Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water”. By leaving the listener wanting more, White ensured that his anthem would remain evergreen. The rest of the album was more thrilling still, offering twisted experimentation (“I Smelled A Rat”, “The Union Forever”), cutesy pop hooks (“Hotel Yorba”, “We’re Going To be Friends”), and brilliantly barmy rockers (“Offend In Everyway”, “I’m Finding It Harder To Be Gentleman”).
“Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” was the true highlight however, as White emerged as a truly heart-breaking songwriter as well as crushing riff king. The story was simple but devastating. A man, anxious to hear his lover’s voice and to hold her in his arms, returns home to an empty house, and is left alone, haunted by the ghosts of past regrets. White’s tone and turn of phrase were perfect, and he sent shivers down spines as he cried; “If you can hear a piano fall, you can hear me coming down the hall”.
Elephant followed in 2003 and the world was at Jack’s feet. “The Hardest Button To Button”, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” and of course “Seven Nation Army” proved irresistible. The latter has become a cultural landmark so conspicuous that fans will spontaneously chant the track’s riff (not lyrics) at sporting events, parties, and celebrations across the world. More than that though, Jack both broadened and narrowed his horizons with sharp pop (“Hypnotize”), brutal pit starters (“Black Math”), blues odysseys (“Ball And Biscuits”), and Queen style pomp (“There’s No Room For You Here”). Multi-million sales, headline dates and pop culture superstardom followed.
The White Stripes quickly took a back seat for White as he starred in Cold Mountain and began to expand his production repertoire. In 2004, he struck gold when he decided to help The Queen of Honky Tonk, Lorretta Lynn, resurrect her career. White might be a revivalist, but he had a keen eye for modernism, and he instantly revitalised the old starlet’s sound. Alternative-country was the order of the day, and White laid down a series of sweeping earthy arrangements that perfectly complimented Lynn’s humble charm and newfound soul. A little bit eerie, and more than a little enticing, White’s sonic landscapes and countrified guitar work allowed a genuinely inspired Lynn to dazzle on a true five star LP.
Back in The Stripes, White began experimenting with darker lyrical fragments, marimbas, and paranoia on the disconcerting LPs Get Behind Me Satan (2005) and Icky Thump (2007). Both albums were led by booming guitar anthems, the disco stomp of “Blue Orchid” and the bulldozing political bite of “Icky Thump” respectively, but those hits only served to disguise less conventional song structures and the weirder excesses of White’s mind. The unsettling near Lynch pop of “The Nurse” and “Forever For Her (Is Over Me)” truly defined Get Behind Me Satan, while the insanely triumphant-come-ominous prog of “Little Cream Soda” and “Conquest” provided the epilogue to The Stripes’ strange career.
Simultaneously, White started a so-called “supergroup” with Brendan Benson and The Greenhornes, producing two albums of highly successful retro-rock as The Raconteurs. Far less intriguing than The Stripes, the group did pen a series of slick hits (“Steady As She Goes”, “Salute Your Solutions”, and “Broken Boy Soldiers”). In 2009 White teamed up with Allison Mosshart of The Kills, and got back behind the drum kit to create some far less commercial but nonetheless enjoyable howling rock. In 2011 the seemingly inevitable happened, The White Stripes officially called it a day, and everyone and their mother began to speculate about a Jack White solo album.
The Here And Now: Jack White’s first solo album, Blunderbus, was released this month, and Guitar Planet’s extended thoughts and official verdict can be found right here.
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