This Rock Star Has Yet To “Blunder”
Issue   |   Wed, 04/04/2012 - 00:12
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As mastermind behind the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, we can expect that Jack White’s upcoming solo album “Blunderbuss” will measure up to his former, touted successes.

In January, British newspaper The Guardian published an article titled “Rock music’s death knell has yet to toll.” By my own estimation, rock music, if not dead, is at least flat lining in popularity. But I don’t blame people who choose to listen to pop over rock today. After all, their choices include a bunch of washed-up older acts who release a new album every 4 or 5 … or 7 years, some lighter pop punk bands like Green Day desperately trying to be seen as rock artists (I guess it sounds more serious) and a slew of talentless heavier acts, exemplified by the likes of Linkin Park, who think a dour attitude is all that is necessary to make good music. There’s Radiohead, who remains great, but I would hesitate to call them a rock band these days. Then again, there’s always Nickelback. Like I said, I don’t blame people who don’t listen to rock music these days.

Amongst all this, my favorite rock artist of the past decade has consistently been Jack White. Rising to popularity in the midst of the supposed garage rock revival of the early 2000’s with his then-wife Meg White, his two-person band The White Stripes emerged to be the true stars of the revival. While most of the bands around him fizzled (I guess the movement lacked its own Nirvana to make it stick), by 2001 they were the hot up-and-comers to look out for, possibly about to change the face of rock music for the decade to come. They didn’t, but they were still a great band. In that respect, they were more like Guns n’ Roses than Nirvana in that they brought rock back to its basics and faced considerable popularity themselves, but never really inspired a movement of similar acts to follow. Flash forward about 10 years, and Jack White is still rocking and rolling, ready to release his first solo album, “Blunderbuss,” on April 24, 2012.

But what is a Jack White solo album anyway? While he maintains that Meg (interesting fact: they actually divorced in 2000 despite remaining together professionally for the rest of the decade) was integral to the sound of the White Stripes and to his own stability as an artist, there’s little evidence to suggest that the White Stripes was anything else but his brain child. He wrote and composed basically every song for the band, and he provided the guitar heroics which defined their sound. Likewise, although Meg sang a few songs, solidly at that, it was his high-pitched, abrasive, punk-Robert Plant voice which was most memorable. Meg wasn’t especially talented on a technical level, although she made great use of this by adopting a simple drumming style that was loud and effective. But, when it comes down to it, The White Stripes was Jack White’s band.

And as stated, they were a great band. While they clearly held a debt to older musical artists, which is definitely a good thing as far as I am concerned, they also had their own sound unlike anything else I can think of. White’s songwriting has a great punk-blues aesthetic, combining the intensity and immediacy of the former with the nuance and emotion of the latter, and he can play a guitar to match. Their biggest song, 2003’s “Seven Nation Army,” is also probably their best, with a great riff, some cool soft to loud dynamics and most importantly, a deliciously atmospheric coiled intensity that the band never quite equaled on any other single song. That being said, their greatest feature was their consistency, and White has certainly proved that he knows how to write an album rather than just a hit single. Their two most critically acclaimed albums, 2001’s “White Blood Cells” and 2003’s “Elephant,” are rightfully considered amongst the best albums of the decade, and their final album, 2007’s “Icky Thump,” is an underrated gem. Of course, they all had highlights as well, and personal favorite songs include the moody “The Union Forever,” the epic blues of “Ball and Biscuit,” the hard-hitting, horn-heavy “Conquest,” the catchy, lyrically inventive “Rag and Bone,” the righteously rocking “Little Cream Soda” and the militant, political “Icky Thump.”

However, another great thing about White, and another nod to his retro-minded attitude, is that he makes sure he’s productive. In today’s world, when most artists can barely get out an album every three years, this is true breath of fresh air. Of course, everything he has released hasn’t been with the White Stripes. In 2006, after five albums in seven years with the White Stripes, he released “Broken Boy Soldier” with the Raconteurs (supposedly a super group, but he was really the star of the bunch). And, although he co-wrote the songs with band member Brendan Benson, White still took center stage on the album, which provided the big hit “Steady, As She Goes.” That song definitely has White’s stamp on it, but it sounds more like a pop bid than anything else. Much better is the album’s title track, the awesome “Broken Boy Soldier,” which sounds like a long lost Led Zeppelin would-be classic. In 2008, the band released their follow-up, “Consolers of the Lonely,” a more serious, less tentative album which saw a heavier, more robust sound and a few great songs, the best of which is the fantastic blues story-song “Carolina Drama.”

In between those albums he released the final White Stripes album, the aforementioned “Icky Thump,” and after them, he formed yet another band, this time called The Dead Weather. Their releases, 2009’s “Horehound” and 2010’s “Sea of Cowards,” featured White on drums this time and proved that White mostly took part in outfits that had similar sensibilities to his own. While stellar singer Alison Mosshart provides a moodier, more atmospheric layer to the band and their songs are a little stranger and more angular than the White Stripes or the Raconteurs, which featured a stronger Bluegrass influence, the songs by and large sound like they could have been on a White Stripes album. Again though, White shares songwriting credits with other band members, proving he isn’t the dictator his off-stage temper issues might imply.

As for 2012, his new album “Blunderbuss” will hopefully continue his streak of quality albums. The two singles released thus far aren’t great, but they’re not bad either. The first, “Love Interruption,” is much quieter than expected for a first single, and although it never quite takes off the way I’d expect it to, it’s a good song. Perhaps less so is second single “Sixteen Saltines,” which proves the album isn’t overly sedate, albeit in a decidedly mediocre manner, with a merely decent riff and nothing special either in songwriting or performance. That being said, he did perform an amped up, much better version on Saturday Night Live, proving that he can still play with the best of them. Since his songwriting strength is consistency, here’s hoping that the other songs will measure up. He’s got a great track record, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s little reason for me to assume this album will change that.

This all being said, I do actually think people have a tendency of overrating White a tad. While the White Stripes were a great band, they aren’t Led Zeppelin. They’re more like Cream. Who, you ask? Well, if there was more legitimate competition nowadays I’m sure the teenagers of 2050 might be saying the same thing about The White Stripes. But there isn’t, and they will be remembered. After-all, Jack White was voted the 17th Greatest Guitarist of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine. He isn’t, but that just goes to show you how they needed someone to show the year 2050 how great the state of rock music between 2000 and 2010 was. And for those of you who think White will be long appreciated by even young music fans, Eric Clapton, lead guitarist for Cream, who, like White, hopped between bands for several years before finally trying out a solo career, was voted second on that same list. Familiar with Cream now?

Speaking of which, Clapton’s solo career produced a few classic songs, but by and large he wasn’t the same when he received sole name billing. Then again, he didn’t write all of Cream’s songs or play almost all of the instruments. Jack White did do that for the White Stripes. Let’s hope that, unlike Clapton, his solo album will be as good as we know it can be.