Thursday, May 3, 2012
Jack White's Blunderbuss on LP
If Jack White's Blunderbuss had appeared in 1970 and not 2012, would it have leveled entire cities? Would it have influenced generation after generation of rock musicians? Would it have sold as many copies as Sgt. Pepper's? How high would it rank on Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time? Would it have cracked the Top 100? The Top 20? Higher?
Hyperbole aside, the point I'm trying to push is that Blunderbuss is a truly great rock and roll album...but as every rock critic knows time does provide an all-important context for such judgments. I was recently annoyed by an article that claimed Nevermind is so vital because it was the last truly great rock album. I wondered if the author ever listened to a White Stripes album in his life, or a Black Keys album, or any modern release that truly captured the essence of rock and roll. Great rock is still being performed if you only climb down from the Cobain pedestal and take a look around.
That said, Blunderbuss makes me sad for Meg White. For years Jack White had been defending her rudimentary drumming style by declaring her as an all-important muse, that the Stripes wouldn't be the Stripes without her. Yet here Black is, making perhaps the best Stripes album ever, undermining his recent comments in Rolling Stone that "I've put off making records under my own name for a long time but these songs feel like they could only be presented under my name. These songs were written from scratch, had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression, my own colors on my own canvas." I adore Meg as much as the next indie music geek, but it's clear that the songs here come from the man we've always known and admired as the true creative force behind the Stripes. It might be comforting to Jack's ex-wife to know that he needed a talented back-up band, notably consisting of mostly female performers, to carry on in her absence.
He even carries on the remarkable arc of progression the Stripes maintained through six amazing albums--more complex arrangements, a continuous exploration of new instruments in the mix--and yet at the same time he cements his position as one of rock music's most able and skilled historians. White, if anything, has always been a musical sponge, making every song sound like a lost classic by sticking with the most basic of riffs. That usually consists of a blazing guitar sound blended with a unique sensibility when it comes to lyrics, an unexpected innocence that also sounds more edgy than it is thanks to his uncompromising rock and roll voice.
That brings us back to the original question--is timelessness the same as originality after 50 years of rock and roll? It's difficult to deny the sheer power of these songs, from the gutteral and hard-driving squeal of "Sixteen Saltines" (with its youth-angst lyrics beginning with "She's got stickers on her locker/and the boys' numbers there in magic marker"), the swampy, percussion-prompted "Freedom at 21" (which I just watched in awe during last week's performance on The Colbert Report) and even a faithful cover of "I'm Shakin'" that will make you smile less than ten seconds in due to its loose, fun-filled approach. Like last year's El Camino from the Black Keys, Blunderbuss will make you wonder if we're truly finished with good ol' rock and roll, and whether or not there's still more to discover within the genre's somewhat narrow confines. I'm spoiled by the live Austin music scene, where I can go downtown and hear great rock and roll nearly every day of the week--so I know the answer. The real question therefore is whether everyone else can admit it, and champion the saving grace that's personified by Jack White.
I went with the 180gram LP for this. While I was disappointed that the CD version wasn't included for $25, like so many other modern LP releases, I was thrilled when I played it for the first time. The surfaces are pristine, and the whole kit-and-kaboodle is included on one old-fashioned disc. I appreciate the lack of inner-groove distortion on many of these new 2-LP sets, but putting just two or three songs per side will not encourage vinyl newbies to embrace the increased effort of listening to the vinyl. I heard little or no mistracking toward the end of the sides, so it can be done.
Besides, Jack White is mighty fond of recording in older analog formats (The Stripes' Elephant was cut using equipment that was built no more recently than 1961), so Blunderbuss should be heard on vinyl first. It's a win-win situation, despite the fact that you'll probably want to blare this in your car stereo while driving down the road, thinking about the days when rock was king and every album sounded this good.