Monday, February 20, 2006

Jack White: Back in Action

Every once in a while I come across a new song that just hits me, like scratching an itch I didn’t even know was there. The original in my personal musical journey was “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, with an opening vocal/guitar assault that literally changed my life in 1993. The (lengthy) list from that moment on includes—just to name very, very few—“Casino Queen” by Wilco, “Spin the Black Circle” by Pearl Jam, “Big Exit” by PJ Harvey, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” by U2, and “Hello Operator” by The White Stripes.
Which, speaking of the Stripes, brings me to this weekend and the ditty that’s danced around my head for three days: “Steady, As She Goes” by The Raconteurs.
The who?
The Raconteurs (a French term defined as storytellers with charm and wit) is a side project of Jack White, otherwise known as one half of the aforementioned White Stripes. As the story goes, White and fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson were noodling around in Benson’s home one day when they came up with “Steady.” So pleased with the result, they brought in two more buddies from The Greenhornes to complete a four-piece band and decided to see their chemistry through to its full potential.
“Steady” was released as the group’s first single earlier this year in the UK and will hit America exclusively on vinyl next month. But the band recently began streaming the song on its web site,, which is where I came across it.
Streaming audio aside, the site is worth visiting all by itself. White’s fingerprints are all over this baby. That’s one of the things I especially appreciate about him—he treats every aspect of his career as an authentic artistic adventure. After all, this is the guy who named the Stripes’ second album after a Dutch art movement from the 1920s (“De Stijl”). And it just wasn’t a name he pulled out of his top hat. White says one of the motivations behind The White Stripes is freedom through limited possibilities, thus he and “sister” Meg White are the only members of the band, and they record on ancient equipment in quick spurts of creativity (no year-long studio sessions allowed). De stijl artists believed simplicity—using only primary colors—was a method for finding spiritual harmony. One could argue The White Stripes carry on that tradition in their chosen form of expression—rock and roll, folk, country, the blues, and some of the best music videos of all time.
So it should have come as no surprise that The Raconteurs’ web site would be something out of the ordinary—something out of left field and yet, undeniably cool. is themed like an old Apple interface circa 1981. Of course, the computer mouse wasn’t around back then, and thus doesn’t apply here. I’ve been surfing the Internet for more than a decade, and I don’t remember anything quite like this: Every interaction requires the keyboard, just like the old, old days—you may as well unplug the mouse. Want to read the band’s tongue-in-cheek bio? Press “B.” Looking for tour dates? Hit “T” (none scheduled as yet). And how about that all-important streaming? First press “M” for “media,” then “A” for “audio” and there they are: “Steady, As She Goes” and its b-side, “Store Bought Bones.”
With two rock and roll fireballers at the helm, you’d think “Steady” would kick off with some killer guitar lick, right? Foiled again! “Steady” is actually a slow build, starting with a simple drumbeat, then adds bass and a restrained guitar lick before climaxing in a rocking chorus. While White is best known for his version of the blues, Benson is a more straightforward pop/rock singer/songwriter. However, The Raconteurs seems to be much more than an uncomfortable mish-mash of those two styles. What’s amazing about these two tracks is the difficulty inherent in trying to decipher whose influence is most dominant—the final product truly sounds like an amalgamation of the songwriters’ varying sensibilities.
It’s refreshing to know that White is still willing to write music like this (“Store Bought Bones” is just as good as “Steady, As She Goes,” if not better, with a rip-roaring Zeppelin-esque solo toward the end). All that atonal dissonance on the Stripes’ last album, 2005’s “Get Behind Me Satan,” left me worried, wondering if White had finally tired of all the ridiculous “sell out” chatter surrounding his band and decided to deconstruct the Stripes. Looking back, though, “Satan” is a natural progression; he was just embracing his old country roots, juices that have been flowing for a while now considering his work on the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack and a spectacular turn backing up Loretta Lynn on her 2004 comeback album, “Van Lear Rose.” “Satan” wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, but that’s not always a bad thing—I don’t have to like every single thing Jack White writes.
Thankfully, after hearing these first two teasers from The Raconteurs, it’s clear White hasn’t abandoned the riffs and style that made him a star and beloved to fans worldwide. As a result, the full-length album (due in May) is now my first must-have of 2006. I don’t know if “Steady, As She Goes” will end up on my list of life-changing songs, but for this weekend, anyway, it was one heck of a treat.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Great, Now I Have to Try and Best My Old Boss

I was on my way out of the country last week when the Oscar nominations were announced. I'm back now, but still jet-lagging, so I don't know when I'm going to post my hotly-anticipated thoughts on this pathetic lineup.
So, to hold you over, I offer my first boss and one of my mentors, Mike Perkins, editor of The (Huntington) Herald-Press, who, as usual, wrote an excellent Sunday column this week. He takes a slightly different angle on the Academy Awards than I will (I've been writing mine in my head for a week—paper's for wimps), and I don't necessarily agree with everything little thing he says. But most of it could have come straight out my thoughts. No one knows his community better than Mike, and his piece demonstrates the growing gulf between Hollywood and its supposed audience.
Here's the link to his column (you'll have to cut and paste):