White Stripes Black Out
At the beginning of this month, The White Stripes announced that they were breaking up. I was saddened but not surprised. Jack and Meg White—the once-married duo—formed the Detroit-based band in the late 1990s and have six great full-length albums besides some live recordings and many singles to their credit. Although they already had two albums already out, the first album by The White Stripes that I heard was their third, White Blood Cells, in 2001. I liked them instantly. It was their sound: rock and roll with a blues and punk twist. Raspy, distorted guitar-work (Jack), primal drumming (Meg) and howling vocals. I have lost count of how many times I heard White Blood Cells when I first got that album. Even now, I just have to think of that album and I can hear the opening riffs of the first song, Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground.
But then that entire album is worth listening to on permanent repeat mode. I could do a road trip, say, from Delhi to Mumbai, with just that one album on repeat. Since discovering them in 2001, I have explored all their albums and like them all—White Stripes (their first), De Stijl, Elephant, Get Behind Me Satan and the really good last album, Icky Thump. That last one came out in 2007 after which the band had been on a longish hiatus and that was why I wasn’t surprised when they announced their break-up.
At least one half of the band, Jack, has not been idle. He’s had several side projects going—including The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather—both bands comprise top-notch musicians and their albums are great, especially The Dead Weather’s Horehound and Sea of Cowards.
Besides the great music, The White Stripes were also known for their equally maverick sense of style—the use of red, white and black for album artwork as well as for the outfits they wore—and for their enigma: for a while, the band encouraged people to think that Jack and Meg were siblings when they really were once married (the story goes that Jack took Meg’s surname, White, when they got married).
I must admit I don’t know much about The White Stripes’ other half, Meg, and her work outside of the band. I like her sparse drumming on all their albums and the occasional vocals. On Elephant, there is a song that she sings called In the Cold, Cold Night. If you haven’t heard it, please give it a listen. I love it. It would be a pity if she doesn’t get involved in other projects.
Talking about projects, Jack appears to be hyperactive with those. Besides a slew of side-projects, film and sessions work, he’s a producer. Late last year, at his Tennessee studio, he produced 73-year-old rockabilly legend, Wanda Jackson’s latest album, The Party Ain’t Over, persuading the pioneering singer to cover even the work of contemporary singers, including Amy Winehouse. I heard a stream of that album on a website and was truly amazed by the energy levels and the arrangement.
But the Jack White project that I was most impressed with lately was his latest find, First Aid Kit. That is the name of a Swedish group made up by two sisters—Johanna and Klara Soderberg who are a folk-influenced duo from outside Stockholm. I heard their first album, The Big Black & The Blue, and was struck by their vocal harmony and songwriting skills. Like many Swedish bands, they sing in English and you can discern the influence of modern American folk musicians in their songs.
Last year, in October, when the duo was performing at New York’s annual CMJ festival, Jack White got the sisters to fly down to his Tennessee studio and record two singles (four songs). If he was able to get the septuagenarian Wanda Jackson to do Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good, he got First Aid Kit to record It Hurts Me Too—a blues standard that was first recorded by an American musician, Tampa Red in 1940. I’ve heard many people cover It Hurts Me Too, including Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Canned Heat, The Rolling Stones and Gov’t Mule (I am sure dozens more have done it too). But the First Aid Kit’s folksy, harmonised cover of that standard—with a little help from Jack—is quite unique. And, while it made me sad to learn that The White Stripes are no more, I am quite sure Jack White will continue to surprise us with projects—both as musician and producer.