There are some artists that are so prolific that a single band can’t contain their many musical dimensions.
And then there’s Jack White…
There’s so much more to the proud Detroit native than simply being just one half of the White Stripes, and though his work with Meg in the dynamic blues rock twosome certainly broke his name to the wider world, White has packed a hell of a lot more into his 38 years than most musicians do into their entire careers.
Songwriter. Producer. Occasional Actor. There’s no doubting he’s a contemporary renaissance man and as such, there’s many feathers to the fine plumage that is his body of work than simply the bands he’s fronted… or played drums for, or produced, or guested with – you get the idea.
So no matter where you fall on the Jack White fandom spectrum, whether you’re the kind of diehard who’s even been lucky enough to step inside Third Man Records or a complete novice who can only hum a few bars of ‘Seven Nation Army’, these are the 10 musical pieces that quickly yet comprehensively complete the complex puzzle that is Jack White.
The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)
2001′s White Blood Cells may have been their breakthrough album and 2005′s Get Behind Me Satan probably brought them a wider audience, but it was in fact the album sandwiched between them that solidified The White Stripes’ bulletproof reputation. Having celebrated its 10th Anniversary last year, even a decade later, Elephant’s influence on the sound and shape of rock and roll in the modern era is suitably hulking.
The duo’s ability to fuse the primal joys of a fuzz-rock riff with melodies too big and too good for the casual listener to ignore is the album’s driving force, exemplified in the way that ‘Seven Nation Army’ singlehandedly marched its way into the modern pantheon of rock classics. From the searing ‘Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine’ to the battering double-shot of ‘Ball And Biscuit’ then ‘The Hardest To Button To Button’, Jack & Meg channel the energetic spirit of punk, ditch its anti-ambition dogma in favour of wall-to-wall technicality and execution, then smear the whole package in a filthily enjoyable, nasty garage blues attack.
In short, it’s the essential White Stripes album and a brilliant place for any journey into Jack White to begin.
The Saboteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers (2006)
Upon first listen, which for most was bolstering lead single and opening track ‘Steady As She Goes’, White’s first ‘proper’ side-project initially sounded less like a supergroup and more like what the White Stripes would be if they were a traditional four-piece rock band. But digging a little deeper into The Raconteurs’ (let’s just ignore the whole Saboteurs moniker for Aussie audiences only, shall we?) 2006 debut and it’s clearer that the shared writing credits between White and fellow Detroit songsmith Brendan Benson goes much deeper.
With the benefit of Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, the rhythm section of The Greenhornes (who White has also produced), The Raconteurs allowed White the rhythmic bedrock so key to his sonic flair, but also the space to flesh out his wealth of music ideas (and following on from Get Behind Me Satan, there was obviously a lot of them). If nothing else, Broken Boy Soldiers amply proved there was other genre curiosities – power pop, hints of psychedelia, 60s modeism – that White needed to satisfy outside of the confines of his day job with Meg.
Various Artists - Cold Mountain OST (2003)
No portrait of Jack White would be complete without mention of his dalliances into the world of cinema and while he’s made better crossovers into film (his James Bond-driven Alicia Keys collab ‘Another Way To Die‘ is easily the best thing about Quantum Of Solace), there’s few as involved as White’s contribution to Anthony Minghella’s lumpen 2003 Civil War epic, Cold Mountain.
Working with the soundtrack’s producer and coordinator, T-Bone Burnett, White delivers no less than five tracks, opening the collection of ballads and blues throwbacks with his take on traditional folk tune, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. The lilting ‘Never Far Away’ is another distinct highlight, providing a delicate turn from a musician that – up to that point – had been seen purely as a Michigan magnate for rollicking electric guitar wizardry. The film also featured an on-screen cameo from White (and his sideburns) as a mandolin player.
Soledad Brothers - Soledad Brothers (2000)
Jack White not only engineered this raw, raucous eponymous record – released in 2000 – but the Soldedad Brothers’ Johnny Walker had also been housemates with the musician, teaching him how to play slide guitar as well as offering some licks on the first two White Stripes albums.
The record’s bass-less, Delta blues-meets-downtrodden rock trio shtick shares a lot in common with the Stripes, and Meg White even makes a cameo, and it’s Mr. White’s ability to capture the Ohio outfit’s immediacy and jagged edge simplicity that helped hone his own craft working behind the studio desk as well as in front of it. Not only that, but Soledad Brothers kick-started Jack’s career as a moonlighting producer. Speaking of which…
Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (2004)
By the time the country music veteran asked a 28-year-old White to produce (and perform) on her record, he’d already much experience helming records for multiple bands, but most had been vaguely in the realm of rock. What began as an experiment in fusing Lynn’s songwriting with White’s sonic sensibilities turned into a fruitful, late career highlight for the prolific 72-year-old.
As the pair’s duet on ‘Portland, Oregon’ and the White-composed ‘Little Red Shoes’ best demonstrated, the record’s high achievement was in the complementary nature of the pairing, Lynn’s gripping storytelling shone through even as the musical settings had all the flourishes that – in 2004 – were already being considered as Jack White hallmarks. For the country star, it was a chance to break new ground with a new audience better attuned to the darker sensibilities her conspirator brought, while for White it was the chance to work with a vintage musical hero of his.
Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain’t Over (2011)
While Van Lear Rose is an obvious blueprint to this 2011 team-up between White and the legendary First Lady of Rockabilly, it’s a different beast entirely. For starters, Wanda Jackson’s 30th(!) solo record is a covers album – taking in choices selected by both Wanda and White, including classics (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash) as well as contemporary cuts (a snarling turn of Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know That I’m No Good’).
Though it showcases Jackson’s trademark growl and strut – beautifully grizzled now she was in her mid-70s, The Party Ain’t Over is actually more of a glitzy cabaret of show-tunes than it is a genuinely nostalgic retread. Recorded and released in Nashville through White’s Third Man Records, it’s less concerned with preserving the historical values of the rockabilly scene than it is giving them a glitzy modern update. As such, it’s an important part in White’s musical oeuvre, showing he could get equally great results from pastiche as much as he could the authentic. (And his work with Insane Clown Posse, a whole other kettle of fish.)
Karen Elson - The Ghost Who Walks (2011)
The third dimension in what can be seen as a trilogy of albums produced for White’s feminine muses, this 2011 debut from the musician’s former spouse is obviously seen as much more than a vanity project than either Wanda Jackson’s and Loretta Lynn’s efforts. Though she was primarily known as ‘White’s model wife’ at the time, the murky mix of nocturnal indie folk and noir pop that spanned the 12 tracks of The Ghost Who Walks helped the world see the talent that White fell in love to begin with.
Again, White’s fingerprints are all over the album – such as the murder ballad lyrics of the title track (whose video White also directed) and most pointedly on the haunting turns of ‘The Truth Is In The Dirt’ – but they were lighter in touch and more focussed to support Elson’s singing abilities than subvert them. All in all, it more closely resembles his work with another of his high-profile side-projects…
The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards (2010)
Taking up residence behind the drumkit allowed White to take a bit of a backseat – both literally and figuratively. A move made all the more genius by putting The Kills’ Alison Mosshart front and centre. Backed by the grimy, groovy work of QOTSA’s six-string slayer Dean Fertita and White’s ever-reliable bassist Jack Lawrence, Mosshart is free to wail like the sexualised, evocative lovechild of Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry she was born to be.
While 2009 debut Horehound perfectly posited the giddy filth and fury of The Dead Weather, it was the swiftly released follow-up that solidified the subtle yet essential distinctions in sound and scope from this White project from all others. The way that it grinds electronic touches with scuzzy rock on ‘Looking At The Invisible Man’ and the batty u-turns of ‘I’m Mad’ offers sonic territory that White had rarely traversed before (or since) in his many other musical guises. No wonder then, that it’s a third Dead Weather record that’s arguably more anticipated than a follow-up to solo debut Blunderbuss.
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Rome (2011)
A lesser-known but no less fascinating curio in the Jack White catalogue, chiefly because it’s not his baby at all. The creative juices of Rome are actually primarily the work of producer Brian Burton – better known as Danger Mouse – and Italian composer Daniele Luppi; equally indebted to the Spaghetti Westerns its paying homage to as it is the cultivated soundtrack work of any one of Quentin Tarnatino’s flicks.
Though White only sings on three tracks of this evocative 15-track set, his contribution is not only impossible to downplay but goes beyond merely singing. His part in Rome – along with the silky lungwork of Norah Jones – is better thought of less as a guest musician, but instead as a starring actor, the lone cowboy that wanders into the cinematic scenery of ‘Two Against One’ and ‘The World’, offering a unique slant that only a veritable gunslinger like White could fire off.
Various Artists- Rockin’ Legends Pay Tribute To Jack White (2010)
Though White doesn’t have any direct involvement in this Cleopatra Records compilation, his rich songbook informs every single one of the assorted 14 cover versions gathered here. ‘Rockin’ Legends’ isn’t a red herring either, with vintage heroes like Wanda Jackson, Gary U.S. Bonds, Sonny Burgess, Joe Clay, Bobby Vee, and veteran saxophonist Big Jay McNeely all offering their takes on White’s tunes – all bringing out their latent ‘classic’ quality.
The tribute album is also a true testament to Jack White’s legacy. Even at the relatively fresh-faced age of 38 (compared to the aged stars that feature on the tracklisting), White has seen the same list of vintage rock heroes that first inspired him as a young musician to return the favour on a tribute album to his discography.
How many modern music-makers can say they are at the centre of such a beautiful ‘circle of life’ moment? And in their own lifetime?
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