Thursday, April 29, 2010

Under the Great White Northern Lights

The White Stripes' Under the Great White Northern Lights is a live album, recorded during an extended tour of Canada. This tour has already developed mythological qualities in rock circles - how the White Stripes travelled by bus and propeller plane, how they plays concerts at bars, bowling alleys, and retirement homes, how they played small towns in every province, and had a free, one-note show in St. Johns, Newfoundland, that left the audience chanting "One more note! One more note!" They played towns a series of small towns like Yellow Knife (its in the Northwest Territories) where basically every person under age 40 showed up to see them. Yes, it was performance art, and yes, they were self-consciously manipulating their own image, but whe those pretenses are backed up by musicianship this strong, all of that can be forgiven.

The White Stripes excel at using the studio to make two musicians sound like an entire band. Other than one song that has an accordian part, every note on this album was played by just two people, Jack and Meg White. They're not perfect - they rush through some songs and miss notes occasionally, but they make a lot of glorious noise come out of their two instruments. The songs don't sound perfect, nor do they sound like their album versions, sandwiched between ovations. A lot of these songs are far superior to the album versions, particularly "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and "Blue Orchid," which has never sounded better. And they mix in enough covers and deep cuts to keep you guessing. Its a great recording, made all the better by the crowd noise, always up in the mix, which makes you feel as if you are right there in the room with them. The crowd on this album is more than just vague background noise - you hear them stomp their feet, clap along with "Seven Nation Army's" famous into, and hear individual members of the audience shouting out.

Sometimes, Jack White's enthusiasm gets the best of him, with self-indulgently fretty outros, random shouting, and a sort of agitated speaking-as-singing that doesn't quite work. It may fail to sound pretty from time to time, but it never fails to sound like a concert - a sweaty mess of a small-venue concert. The effect is electic. Mid-way through "Seven Nation Army," Jack White sings "I'm gonna blow your mind/make the sweat drip out of every pore." By the end of this album, you'll believe him.

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