With the release of ‘Blunderbuss’, Mr John Anthony Gillis, aka Jack White, is back on top. Which got us thinking, how would we rank his albums in order of greatness? Do we secretly think his work with The Dead Weather has aged better than those early White Stripes albums? (Hint: no). Could it be that ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’ is dearer to our hearts than ‘De Stijl? (Also no). Read on to find out what we make of Jack’s canon – and let us know your own lists below…
Pray tell, how on earth did a feral bunch of musicians who, between them, have helped power The White Stripes, The Kills and Queens Of The Stone Age join forces to make something so drearily lumpen? Save for the odd phosphorous-flash of inspiration – the riff-tastic ‘Will There Be Enough Water’, the heavy-threat of ‘Hang You From The Heaven’s’ – ‘Horehound’ sounds crushingly conventional: too much plodding, and not nearly enough pizzazz.
It should be noted, of course, that ‘Steady, As She Goes’ is a colossal tune: a hook-laden monster with some of the mightiest harmonies that Jack’s ever had a hand in creating. The rest of the album, though? It’s all a bit half-arsed: a smattering of throwaway ideas (‘Together’, ‘Yellow Sun’) with a miserly handful of gems. It’s all perfectly serviceable, but when you’ve got the dual songwriting talents of Jack and Brendan Benson, your goals should be a little loftier.
Rush-releasing any creative endeavour – be it album, film or whatever – without letting it be rated and slated by vicious hacks first is usually a tell-tale sign that someone’s created an almighty stinker. All the more kudos to ‘Consolers Of The Lonely’, then, which is effectively the album that The Raconteurs should have debuted with – particularly as it’s blessed with the ferociously catchy opening salvo of ‘Salute Your Solution’, an adrenaline-shot of searing, MC5-indebted guitars, and the hook-heavy, piano-driven ‘You Don’t Understand Me’. Better late than never, eh boys?
And you can file this one under “Bloody hell, if only they’d released this as their debut instead”, too. The problem with some of Jack’s extra-curricular projects is that they’ve seemed too much like aimless self-indulgence, but ‘Sea Of Cowards’ feels like he’s fully embracing – and relishing – the opportunity to operate outside of the Stripes. A mixture of gothic teeth-gnashing and hammer-and-tongs sleaze, regardless of whether Jack’s at the forefront (‘Blue Blood Blues’) or Alison Mosshart’s banshee-wail is taking centre-stage (‘I’m Mad’).
It speaks volumes about The White Stripes’ sustained brilliance that, according to us, their lowest-ranked LP in Jack’s canon still boasts some of their top tunes, including the genitals-trapped-in-a-door fuzzy squall of ‘Blue Orchid’, the gentlemanly pop of ‘My Doorbell’ and so forth. Largely ditching the electric guitar was always a risky move, though, and Meg’s mangled vocal on ‘Passive Manipulation’ isn’t the only thing stopping most ardent Stripes’ fanatics heartily clasping this one to their bosoms.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where it all began. And what’s truly remarkable is that, even over a decade on, Jack and Meg still sound daisy-fresh on their debut. Whether they’re breathing life into well-worn fares such as Dylan’s ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’, sounding sweetly innocent and archaic on ‘Sugar Never Tasted So Good’, or ripping it up on the hollering ‘Jimmy The Exploder’, it’s worth reminding yourself why we fell in love with the pair all over again.
It could be argued that it’s too early to rank Jack’s debut amongst his pantheon of older works; that we’ll only know where it really slots into his back-catalogue when it’s sat with us a little while longer. But, for now, there’s something rather beguiling about such a myth-heavy practicioner giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the real man underneath the makeup. ‘Blunderbuss’ may not be a full-frontal confessional but, with Jack bidding adieu to two of the most important women in his universe recently, there’s something perversely thrilling about the likes of ‘Hypocritical Kiss’, ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ and ‘Sixteen Saltines’ – the latter, in particular, sounding like a bruised and lovelorn kiss-off to an old flame.
For me, ‘Icky Thump’ has long been the album on which Jack picked up the ball he fumbled slightly on his previous two outings, and proved himself to be a generation-straddling talent all over again. Like ‘GBMS’, it’s weird and challenges every preconception you had about The White Stripes, but it’s a far more enjoyable curveball, as evidenced by the mad-hat title track and flamenco frenzy of ‘Conquest’. And whereas ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’ lacked spark and subtlety, ‘Icky Thump’ is buoyed by Jack’s propensity for penning catchy bangers a la ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)’. And this is without even mentioning all those odd odes to Scotland, too…
People sure do love to peg The White Stripes as retro-loving revivalists, don’t’ they? And, it must be said, it’s an image exacerbated somewhat by Jack’s disdain for the modern fripperies of the 21st century. And yet ‘De Stijl’ is the sound of a band who, even if they plunder the past, twist it into something new and exciting: just listen to how they give 60s pop a facelift on ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)’, or how they renovate garage blues on ‘Hello Operator’. And then there’s all the other classics on the LP: ‘Apple Blossom’, ‘Let’s Build A Home’, ‘Sister, Do You Know My Name?’. A thoroughly corking affair.
An album that just misses out on nabbing the gold medal, but is a mighty piece of work nonetheless. For the Stripes’ major label debut is a dazzling display of everything that makes them so cherished: bloody brilliant riffs (‘Seven Nation Army), inspired covers (‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’), snarling, bluesy punk (‘Black Math’), off-kilter humour (‘Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine’) and show-off brilliance (‘Ball And Biscuit’). Apart from the coquettish Meg-fronted ‘In The Cold, Cold Night’, it’s darker, more dangerous than the pair’s previous work, yet it became the record that shoved them into the mainstream. That they confronted the masses with such wonderful wares as ‘Hardest Button To Button’ makes it even more lovable.
‘Elephant’ could have taken first place, of course. But, to these ears, ‘White Blood Cells’ will always be The White Stripes’ finest offering: an album on which the heavens smiled upon them, all the stars aligned and bona-fide brilliance was born. The daisy-fresh sweetness of ‘De Stijl’ still lingers in the ramshackle country of ‘Hotel Yorba’ and charming innocence of ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’, but Jack and Meg were also getting more visceral, more pissed off: just witness the heavy, thundering squall of ‘Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground’ and ‘I Think I Smell A Rat’. Not many bands could make the quaint ‘Little Room’ and riff-stomp of ‘Offend In Every Way’ seem like natural bedfellows, but that’s always been the Stripes’, and Jack’s, gift: turning preconceptions on their head, and making magic out of the seemingly absurd.
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