Review of Jack White’s Blunderbuss

My first impression of Jack White was created from hearing Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, and then Hotel Yorba.  It was during a time in my life when listening to rap music was getting old.  It just didn’t do it for me anymore.  And so, my brother, more of a punk rock fan, said I should try The White Stripes.  This was also back in the day when Napster was working wonders, and you could download music that wasn’t even created yet.  I downloaded White Blood Cells to later purchase at an actual store.  This was the Stripes’ third album and it had come out that year (2001).  I guess I was late to the party because Jack and Meg were a big deal.  Jack White recently had an interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen.  They discussed White’s newest endeavor, his first solo album, Blunderbuss.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around this project.  I inevitably compare it to the White Stripes.  Jack knows this is going to happen.  He said he had to wait until The White Stripes were completely over before putting out something under his own name – “I don’t really feel like going through the dumb perception battle of people who couldn’t be broad minded enough to understand the difference between Jack White and The White Stripes (NME.com).”  The problem might be because many first impressions of White were so strong.  He set the bar really high and everything he’s done since is compared.  He touches on this in lyrics on Blunderbuss

The people around me
Won’t let me become what I need to
They want me the same
I look at myself and want to
Just cover my eyes and
Give myself a new name

(lyrics from On and On and On, track 12 on Blunderbuss).

This is understandable, but no matter how highly I respect the man’s music, it’s impossible to escape that first impression.  Is it similar to people’s first impression of Bob Dylan?  My father said the first time he heard Dylan was when Subterranean Homesick Blues came on the radio.  People’s attraction to Dylan’s music is too often simplified to his lyrics.  But, I completely understand the infatuation.  His lyrics seem to unravel right in front of you, often expressing the feeling you have at that moment.  And, in Dylan’s song Ballad of a Thin Man, he conveys what my father was feeling when he first heard a Dylan song – “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”  That is how I felt the first time I heard Dead Leaves and Hotel Yorba.  There is something about these songs.  I joke that you could download songs from Napster that weren’t created yet, but with these songs, along with so many of Dylan’s, they feel like they were already here, or always here.  Boilen and White discussed this too, except about his new songs.  Check out the interview on NPR.org.

First impressions are complicated.  Personally we don’t like it when others judge us, especially at first glance or first conversation.  Yet, we can’t escape it.  It’s human nature.  It might be even trickier with music, especially today with so much demand for instant gratification.  And so, that leads to my first impression of Blunderbuss instinctively being compared to the first White Stripes’ songs I heard.  For those songs, I had no expectations.  I downloaded Dead Leaves and was hooked ever since.  Next came Hotel Yorba, and that became one of those moments that a music-obsessed person doesn’t forget where they were when they first heard certain music.  It’s tattooed to my memory, and I hadn’t even heard all of White Blood Cells yet .  Two more classic albums sat there waiting to be heard (The White Stripes, 1999, and De Stijl, 2000).  I haven’t looked away since.

It may be an inclination to call Blunderbuss more of a songwriter’s album, but hearing White talk about his music for years, and listening to it for myself, I’m going to assume he considers all his albums to have an emphasis on lyrics.  Listen for yourself.  You can read them too, you know.  His word play is addicting.  The best example of this on Blunderbuss is the track Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.  This belongs in White’s cannon of songs that should be sung in elementary schools across the nation (that’s why our education system is failing; a call for singing more Jack White!).  Other songs in this category are: Hotel YorbaMy DoorbellEffect & CauseWe’re Going to Be Friends, and Little Room.  In fact, I had to create a skit with a group of fifteen eight year-olds for a summer camp.  It was either me or the eight year-olds that chose to have the kids walk out clapping to Son House’s Grinnin’ in Your Face (Jack’s favorite song), switch to a sing-a-long to The White Stripes’ Little Room, and end with keeping the beat to Queens’ We Will Rock You.  These are also the songs I like to categorize as – you’re not human if you don’t like them.  Yes, when acoustic guitars and pianos are used, lyrics are more at the forefront, like in these songs.  Yet, it is evident White cares about the songwriting craft in all his songs.  He has said in the past that he considers himself a part of the songwriters family, and is proud that some saw The White Stripes’ music coming from the folk tradition.

Now, nostalgia can creep in and you may start to miss White’s signature guitar, a la Ball in a BiscuitHello Operator, Top Yourself.  There is a taste of it in Weep Themselves to Sleep, where at the end of the song, White’s guitar stutters, creating something cool and new sounding, yet familiar, and maybe even reminding you he’s still got it.  Like he says at the beginning of this song:

No one can blow the shows
Or throw the bones
That break your nose
Like I can

And, if you happen to catch the livestream of his performance at Webster Hall (4/27), well, statement confirmed.  Watch for yourself, and then answer my question – Who else alive can do that?

The comparisons to Dylan’s career again apply here.  Everyone wanted the folk/protest singer still.  Dylan wanted to do something new, maybe even plug-in and wear a leather jacket.  White is interested in more than just wowing you with his guitar, and might want to wear something other than red, white and black.  I guess that should have been apparent when hearing those first two songs of his I heard – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground and Hotel Yorba.  And, well, with whatever attracted you to the Stripes’, White might respond:

Well ok, so you fell asleep today
What’s funny to me though
Is that you did that yesterday

(lyrics from Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, track 10 on Blunderbuss).

All White’s songs, from The Raconteurs to The Dead Weather (ones sung by him), and his new solo songs, could fit on White Stripes’ albums, really.  There is a shift in the music though, and it comes during the most interesting part of the Blunderbuss that stretches across five songs, starting with Weep Themselves to Sleep.  Here is when I really sense that full-band feel.  This song, if I had to place it, might fit best on Get Behind Me Satan.  Someone else could make a case for the other five albums, though.  Yet, in the past three years, since the establishment of White’s Third Man Records in Nashville, he has taken on more of producer/orchestrator role.  I can almost see him in front of his new backing bands waving wands; something new is happening here, even when White performs Stripes’ songs with the full band (made up of all males, or all females, depending on which night you catch him perform).

The next shift is with the only cover song on the album, Rudolph Toombs’ I’m Shakin’.  I only recall one taste of rockabilly from the Stripes with Baby Brother.  Yet, White’s influences, ability and interests lie in all genres – so we should have expected this at some point.  The next song, Trash Tongue Talker, continues in the rockabilly direction, adding a classic piano, a la Jerry Lee Lewis.  White often likes to talk about spontaneous creation, and not over thinking.  These songs, along with the next two, Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy and I Guess I Should Go To Sleep, have this feel to them like friends, or like-minded musicians, just happen to show up in Nashville, and they decided to bang out a few songs with Jack.  Pokey Large provides backing vocals on I Guess I Should Go to Sleep.  It’s hard to believe he lives in the 21st century, and Jack likes to pretend he doesn’t either; the constant adman for vinyl.  It’s a shame I listened to this through a sole Ipod speaker.

Blunderbuss was released on April 24th.  If I listened to the actual CD, instead of with my Ipod, it may have worn away by now.  Each day I have averaged three listens through the entire album.  It nauseates me to give straight forward reviews.  At first impression, I wasn’t in love with The White Stripes’ debut; now it’s one of my favorites.  I’ve made the mistake before by judging too soon.  So, I will leave you with this.  Jack White, first impression, and beyond, has made an impression on the music I listen to more than anyone.  He was that musician that made me want to dig deeper into music history.  And, after Blunderbuss, I want to continue to dig (you dig?).  Blunderbuss isn’t my favorite Jack White album, but that’s beside the point.  It confirms that he has moved on from The White Stripes, and like with everything he has done, I can’t look away. Like Dylan, White is going to do whatever he wants.  All I really wanna do is continue to listen.  And, fans have to move on too –  maybe in order to truly appreciate The White Stripes – and to not miss what he’s creating in the present.

Garrett D. Kennedy  (Contributing writer)