From the moment Jack Gillis married Meg White, changed his name and started passing himself off as her brother, it’s been clear he has a talent for acting. In many ways, [a]White Stripes[/a] are an elaborate fiction, within which it’s tricky to separate truth from lies. Only when White covers an old song – Son House’s harrowing blues, ‘Death Letter’, say – are we able to see how convincingly he inhabits not just songs, but characters, too.
The five songs he contributes to the soundtrack of his feature film debut, ‘Cold Mountain’, are best understood this way: as Jack White – or Jack Gillis, if you like – singing in the role of Georgia, a Civil War soldier married to Renee Zellweger.
It’s fascinating stuff, not least for the novelty of hearing White’s voice in a different instrumental setting, backed by the banjos, mandolins and fiddles of bluegrass virtuosos rather than Meg’s primal thud. He’s in an elevated company here, many of whom figured on the multi-million-selling score to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ ‘Cold Mountain’s soundtrack producer, T-Bone Burnett, also steered that project, though his early career as a sideman with Bob Dylan may have been more appealing to the fannish White.
Anyway, don’t come expecting ‘Seven Nation Army’. White sings three traditional songs straight, adds new lyrics to a fourth, and performs one quite brilliant original, ‘Never Far Away’, an acoustic blues that vaguely recalls Led Zeppelin’s ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’. For the bleak spiritual of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (last spotted on Johnny Cash’s ‘American III: Solitary Man’), White affects a nasal twang that’s curiously moving. For ‘Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over’, he gamely takes the lead in a fun, if stagey, hillbilly hoedown. Throughout, what’s most striking is how seamlessly he fits into new surroundings. While it’s unlikely that he’ll pursue anything as historically precise as this for a solo career, ‘Cold Mountain’ proves what most of us have long suspected: when [a]White Stripes[/a] end, White will be far from finished.
The rest of the soundtrack is a mixed bag. The traditional material is engaging, from Cassie Franklin’s chilling a capella, ‘Lady Margret’, to the supernaturally powerful Sacred Harp Singers At Liberty Church (those intrigued by this interface between folk, blues and Gospel in America should hunt down the recent ‘Goodbye, Babylon’ box set, which has hundreds of fabulous examples). Alison Krauss and Sting doing a kind of ambient folk is fairly grim, though, and some mawkish orchestral pieces show the movie in its true light, as a middlebrow Hollywood weepie with the greatest rock star of our time in a minor role. At least he got a date with Renee Zellweger by the end of it.
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