Photo by Amanda Koellner
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, our staff argue over Jack White’s best recording project.
Today marks the release of Dodge and Burn, The Dead Weather’s third album and the follow-up to 2010’s Sea of Cowards. With The Kills’ Alison Mosshart out front and Jack White on drums, plus Dean Fertita on guitar and Jack Lawrence on bass, The Dead Weather is one of four core Jack White recording projects, the first being The White Stripes, followed by The Raconteurs, then The Dead Weather, and finally the solo work of 2012’s Blunderbuss and its 2014 follow-up, Lazaretto. White, steady as he goes, doesn’t let up.
White has been a favorite subject of this website for years and for good reason. He was one of the first modern rock stars who many of our staff members grew up with. The choruses and riffs of The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Seven Nation Army” shattered worlds, and that’s to say nothing of the band’s red, white, and black color scheme and husband-and-wife/brother-and-sister mythos. Combined with his later work with The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and as a solo act, the sum of it all positions White as one of the most important rockers of the 21st century, if not the most important. (We still haven’t brought up his production work for Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, and others or the fact that Third Man Records continues to evolve the possibilities of physically packaged music.)
Dodge and Burn is White’s 13th album between that core four. He made six with Meg White, but whereas she’s been awfully quiet in the years since the Stripes disbanded, Jack has continued to approach his craft(s) with enthusiasm and persistence, with little-to-no falloff in quality. Below, four CoS writers make their case for their favorite Jack White recording endeavor. What’s your pick?
The White Stripes
The White Stripes were the first band most of us came to know Jack White through, and come on, who’s going to argue that any of the others is his best? The blues rock duo touted innumerable era-defining riffs while still remaining faithful to the blues that inspired a young John Anthony Gillis while growing up in Detroit. With modest instruments, modest recording equipment, and uncomplicated arrangements (and, in Meg’s case, an initially limited skillset), the Stripes were pure. And powerful.
Take them as a singles band, completely removed from the unifying motifs of their 14-year existence. The pummeling, blissfully fuzzed-out White Blood Cells single “Fell in Love with a Girl” funneled decades of Detroit rock into two catchy minutes of mayhem. The band’s next album, Elephant, had “Seven Nation Army” and its world-conquering main riff. Then came the comparably thunderous “Blue Orchid” and “Icky Thump” from Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, respectively. On the acoustic end, songs like “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends” fit firmly into the Stripes’ aesthetic, the simplistic, sincere lyrics an extension of the back-to-basics approach Jack and Meg brought to virtually everything they did.
Beyond the individual songs is the spirit and totality of what the Stripes did, from the spousal beginnings to the red, white, and black color scheme to the blues inspirations (they covered Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell) to the general hope that these components would yield staggering results. Eventually, they did. For example, that “Seven Nation Army” riff became the most recognizable guitar figure of the 21st century.
I love the pure rock and roll of The Raconteurs’ full-band configuration. I dig Alison Mosshart fronting the doomy blues rock of The Dead Weather. I’m into White’s solo work on both Blunderbuss and Lazaretto. But to argue that The White Stripes are White’s finest endeavor, as I believe, is not so much a matter of the other projects’ quality or lack thereof, but rather the quantity and lasting impact of the Stripes’ catalog. They might be the closest thing a generation had to the Stones or Led Zeppelin, the last three of their albums each winning the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. The Stripes’ 2011 dissolution marked the end of not just an era for Jack White but for rock in general. Sure, early peers The Strokes have stuck around, and newer bands like Titus Andronicus and Japandroids rock massively and faithfully. But no band in the years since, not even The Raconteurs or The Dead Weather, has matched the Stripes’ formidable catalog and memorable, distinct aesthetic. –Michael Madden
For Jack White, The Raconteurs were a simple answer to a deeper question: What more can I do? The White Stripes had just released Get Behind Me Satan, their third album in four years. The band’s popularity was at its apex, and with lead vocal, guitar, and songwriting duties all on his shoulders, White decided to see what would happen if he poured his talent into the mold of a real, four-man rock band. Brendan Benson offered the chance to harmonize, swap vocals mid-song, and create songs with both rhythm and lead guitar lines that didn’t rely on White’s musical ingenuity. Jack Lawrence was the bass absent from most of The White Stripes’ discography, while his Greenhornes bandmate Patrick Keeler offered a percussive edge missing from Meg White’s drum work.
“Steady, As She Goes”, the lead single from The Raconteurs’ debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, perfectly encapsulates the soaring heights White was eager to achieve with The White Stripes but couldn’t fully realize in a duo. This isn’t to dismiss the numerous incredible songs that pepper The White Stripes’ catalog, but rather to cede the obvious: The White Stripes’ albums are essentially solo albums, making Broken Boy Soliders White’s first true record as a member of a band. “Steady, As She Goes” starts with each instrument building off the last, a celebratory expression of the many new toys now at White’s disposal. Drums beget bass begets guitar begets vocals until — as the song reaches its midway crescendo — we are treated to our first true glimpse of what a White-led rock band can sound like.
The rest of Broken Boy Soliders and follow-up Consolers of the Lonely explores the same varieties of pacing, sincerity, and energy that made The White Stripes’ work so memorable, but with the added input and talent of Benson, Lawrence, and Keeler. While The Dead Weather are also a formidable rock band, White’s primary role as drummer makes them less a White-led band and more a band he happens to be in. White’s solo work certainly features other instruments and singers, but every song on Blunderbuss and Lazaretto could easily be mistaken for a stripped-down Raconteurs track. The truth is that of all the many projects White has undertaken, The Raconteurs is the only one that places him in his most ideal setting: as the frontman of a rock group that oozes talent and provides the sturdiest base upon which he can build his skyscrapers of sound. –Zack Ruskin
The Dead Weather
When The Dead Weather’s Horehound came out in 2009, everyone was probably thinking the same thing: Do we really need another Jack White side project? The Raconteurs had come out with their well-received sophomore album, Consolers of the Lonely, only the year before, and while no one can ever accuse White of being unambitious or not working hard enough, his overexposure was starting to feel very real.
The Dead Weather, however, had one secret weapon that The Raconteurs did not: Alison Mosshart. Known for being 50 percent of the grungy, London-based outfit The Kills, Mosshart, with her vampy, smoky voice and don’t-fuck-with-me persona, brought enough gravitas to The Dead Weather to rival White himself. At a Bonnaroo performance in 2010, she was the one who stole the show, shooting glances at White from under a mop of sweaty dark hair in the heat. To be fair, White killed it on the drums, thundering tirelessly through material from Horehound. Their combined powers made the set one of the most memorable of that year’s festival.
Out of all of White’s projects, The Dead Weather is the only one where White’s talent and persona are challenged by that of an equal. (Sorry, Meg.) Born of a Raconteurs/Kills co-headlining tour, the band quickly grew out of Mosshart and White’s like-minded love for hammering beats and machine-gun guitars. The songwriting process, too, sounds like it’s one of the most collaborative of White’s career. “This is the first band I’ve been in where all four members write,” he told NME in an interview. With the help of Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age and rock-musician-about-town Jack Lawrence, also of The Raconteurs, the band has a full-bodied, fleshed-out sound that manages to be classic and urgent at the same time.
Listen. I love The White Stripes. You love The White Stripes. No one is trying to take that away from you. But if there can only be one post-White Stripes Jack White project that reigns supreme, my money is on The Dead Weather every time. Not only does it force White to take a creative backseat (literally, sitting behind the rest of the band on the drums) and share the spotlight, it also brings an energy and air of mysticism to blues/garage rock that we haven’t seen in the mainstream music biz since, well, you know. –Katherine Flynn
Jack White plays hard to get, and who doesn’t love a good chase? He has a peculiar mystique about him, and while he is seemingly everywhere — headlines, stages, an occasional baseball game — he prefers to keep his personal life personal. Rolling Stone’s most recent cover story on White billed itself a “rare invitation into the mysterious world of rock & roll’s Willy Wonka.” And though his reserved personality may pull him toward the shadows, his musical mastery casts him in the spotlight, even more so as a solo artist than as a member of his past (or in the case of The Dead Weather, present again) projects like The White Stripes and The Raconteurs.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about White without mentioning his involvement in the previously stated bands, in part because he has taken bits and pieces of his past — most notably from his White Stripes era — to create his present persona. He took his surname from his former wife and White Stripes bandmate, Meg, in addition to contriving and continuing the use of color schemes; The White Stripes identified with red, white, and black while White now bathes his live solo sets in a hue of blue. Those live sets are where his true artistry is illustrated. When performing solo, White’s dexterity as a guitarist reaches its full potential and never wanes, regardless of how long the set may last. Aside from virtuosity, there’s variety. White’s ever-changing setlists during his Lazaretto tour not only included his solo material (new and old), but also several covers as well as material from any and/or all three of the former bands he played in. To steal a quote from Hannah Montana, White as a solo artist has the best of both all three worlds.
Even the origins of each of those three worlds — The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather — trace back to White. According to the tale of how The Raconteurs were born, Brendan Benson wrote unfinished lyrics to what would later become “Steady, As She Goes”, though it took White’s final touch to complete the song, ultimately launching the band’s career. White wrote the songs for The White Stripes (yet another example of his authority), and even The Dead Weather was a product of White’s own idea — he approached The Kills’ Alison Mosshart to record a song with Jack Lawrence and himself, and from there it all began.
At the center of each startup story sits White, unassuming yet always envisioning his next move, anticipating success. Often, he finds it. It’s as if everything he touches turns to gold, or in the literal sense, sometimes even platinum. As a solo artist, White has been nominated for six Grammys and won the Grammy for Best Rock Performance for “Lazaretto”. Not to mention Blunderbuss and Lazaretto both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, the latter breaking the record for most vinyl sales in a week since 1991, when SoundScan started tracking sales.
White’s influence and contribution to each band he’s played in is entirely evident, but it’s as a solo artist that the breadth of his talent truly shows. In a press release for his solo debut, Blunderbuss, White said, “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.” On “Freedom at 21”, White sings of freedom in the 21st century, and as a solo artist that’s exactly what he has — the freedom to do whatever he wants, to paint his canvas and adhere to no lines. That free range is what makes Jack White, or rather John Anthony Gillis, the best version of himself. –Lyndsey Havens