The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Trying Not to Be Evil Week's Conclusion: Beards, Blazers & Glasses: The Raconteurs

There was a palpable buzz crackling in the air during the Raconteur's concert Wednesday night. The promise of seeing Jack White at the small art-deco venue, the Henry Fonda Theatre, had brought out the typical Los Angeles "big show" hybrid of clueless record company executives, Hollywood agents, wealthy fans with a casual appreciation for music and those people with enough free time on their hands to have scooped up tickets in the first four minutes that they went on-sale back in March (i.e. myself, a.k.a. Webster's definition of "Too Much Time on His Hands").

By the time the concert rolled around, the tickets themselves were going for nearly $200 a pop on EBAY, and I managed to prove to myself that once and for all that music mattered to me more than money (and if you don't think my angel and devil at least had a discussion between whether or not to make $300 in profit by selling the tickets, than you probably haven't been reading this blog for very long).

But it was Jack White, playing one of his first shows ever with his new band. Damned if I was going to miss this one. I might be a tad musically pretentious at times (uh...did you read the Sunset Rubdown review?) but when it comes down to it, I'm a classic rock man. And that's why I like Jack White so much. Out of anyone that this generation has produced, he is the most worthy heir to the classic rock tradition of Led Zep, The Stooges and Hendrix. As one of the network executives on the Simpsons might've said about Poochie, when Jack White is on stage he gets biz-ay...consistently and thoroughly.
I'd caught White thrice previous. The first time at Coachella 2003 (when his performance was powerful enough to make me re-evaluate my attitude towards current rock music), the second time that same summer at a mid-sized arena in New Orleans, and the third time last summer at the Greek Theater when he was touring Get Behind Me Satan. All three times had been nothing short of staggeringly brilliant. Jack White doesn't just do concerts, he puts on a full-fledged show thick with dazzling guitar pyrotechnics, searing molten riffs and rhythm. Plus, you aren't just going to hear the latest single of the album. You're just as likely to hear an old B-Side or an archaic blues cover as you are to hear "My Doorbell." That's why he is awesome. He doesn't care about selling records. He cares about making great music.

But other people seem to think Jack White deeply cares about selling records and can't get down with the fact that his sound resembles something....well mainstream [insert collective gasp here].

Just check out Pitchfork's last three ratings of Jack White projects. Elephant got a 6.9. Get Behind Me Satan received a 7.3, as did the Raconteur's Broken Boy Soldiers Album. The first three White Stripes albums received an 8.3., 9.0., 9.0.

So what is it? Is Jack White slipping? Has he all of a sudden lost any sort of talent and slipped into a coma of mediocrity and self-indulgence? No. He hasn't. Not at all. Elephant is a certifiable classic and if Get Behind Me Satan were a debut album, critics would hailing it as a "bold and striking statement of genius." Look, I like the Band of Horses album quite a bit, but anyone who tells me that it's better than Get Behind Me Satan is only deluding themselves. Give Get Behind Me another another chance, free of all the weighty expectations that accompanied it's release, and it will reveal itself an outstanding, well-crafted album. Perhaps not the Stripes' masterpiece, but not very far off either.

And the Raconteurs album? Mr. White's vaunted side project? Well, naturally almost every critic was quick to savage it as 1970s FM-lite. Kate Sullivan in the LA Weekly was more than ready to point out how suddenly Jack seems so mean-spirited now that Meg isn't around to balance him out.

Pitchfork said "tie on the celebrity blindfold, and Broken Boy Soldiers no longer seems like that much of an achievement-- just another case of men recreating their favorite vinyl deep cuts, if a bit more skillfully than most FM scrapbookers."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Allow me a brief translation: Jack White is popular. He's not ours anymore. Please pass me the new Liars record. Now that Jack White has become a "rock star," he's no longer as original. Suddenly, something that was once fresh and innovative has become tired rock star posturing. After all, how could anyone make music that could be liked by both rock critics and the "common folk." Impossible.

I'm not the first one to point out the fairly obvious divide between critics and listeners. After all, it's practically household knowledge that Led Zep and the Grateful Dead were critically reviled for most of their careers. But other than Robert Hilburn, the now retired music for the LA Times and an increasingly irrelevant Rolling Stone, a lot of preeminent rock critics have unfairly criticized Jack White post-Elephant. And that's too bad. Because after watching the Raconteurs play live, it left me no doubt that Jack White is the number one rock star in the world today (sorry Jim James and Spencer Krug, you guys will just have to settle for the Silver and Bronze).

On-stage, White radiates a sense of energy so strong that it's almost impossible to take your eyes off of him. Bursting with charisma and emotion, he seems to consume every bit of light in the room and harness it towards wherever he's standing. Live, his voice carries a mix o
f power and raw emotion rarely heard outside of the classic rock generation, as every new indie singer seems to be channeling the spirit of Frank Black or Isaac Brock. I like Modest Mouse and the Pixies as much as the next dude, but let's get real, neither of those singers can hold a candle to the Hendrix/Roger Daltrey/Robert Plant et. al pantheon of great rock voices.

Rightfully so, a lot of people have compared White's voice to Robert Plant. After all, like Plant, the true genesis of White's sound lies in the Blues. And yet people seem to get it twisted. It's guys like the lead singer of Wolfmother who are just doing Robert Plant impressions. Not Jack White. If anything, Jack White channels pure Son House, Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, and
maybe a little bit of Iggy Pop thrown in. And it's not derivative either. When you see him on-stage, you can clearly feel his atavistic connection to the music.

But this review isn't about critics. Or at least it shouldn't be. It should be about the show and its a mix of primal psychadelic guitar riffs and pop mastery. It should be about the rest of the band, very worthy in their own right. First off, the stories you have read about the Raconteurs are right. This isn't a side project. They're a very good band. First off, Brandon Benson deserved praise for his performance, displaying a great singing voice live and playing an extremely competent rhythm guitar.

While he sounded quite good on his own Raconteurs songs (they played all 10 album tracks in the hour-long set), surprisingly he stood out the most on a bluesy snarling cover of David Bowie's "Ain't No Easy".

Patrick Keeler, the Raconteurs drummer also impressed me with his ability. And I wasn't the only one who seemed to appreciate Keeler's facility, as all-world NBA blogger/Fred 62 connisseur Nate Jones On the NBA declared after the show: "Damn it's nice to see him up there with someone who can really drum."

But c'mon, everyone knew who the star was. There's a reason why the White Stripes packed the Greek for four straight nights last summer and Brandon Benson and The Greenhornes play Spaceland or the Troubadour. I don't mean to disrespect either of them, as they are obviously very talented musicians in their own right, let's be honest: Jack White is the Star. And he more than proved it Wednesday night, stretching out the tight poppy arrangements of the album tracks and turning them into blistering, awe-inspiring guitar solos and singing in a plaintive howlin' haunted brimestone and fire wail.

The high point for me came when the band played a cover of Love's "A House Is Not a Motel," one of my favorite songs off of one of my favorite albums of all time, Forever Changes. You Set The Scene also was there and delivered basically the same words I was going to write. To paraphrase: Love is probably the quintessential LA band and Jack White strolls into town and played a very passionate and touching version of the song, which made it particularly poignant considering that Arthur Lee is gravely ill with cancer and no big-time LA bands even bothered to step up to play a tribute to help him pay for his med bills. You couldn't help but get a tad emotional and think that in a way, White was doing his own tribute. One that seemed to mean a lot.

This all sounds a bit much, but if there is any musician that needs to be seen in the world today, it's Jack White. The other three people that I attended the show with all declared that it was one of the best concerts they'd ever seen. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, only because I've seen the White Stripes live. I guess my only critique of the show is that it seems a bit unnatural for Jack White to have to cede some of the limelight to Benson and the rest of the band. It's not that they aren't good. It's just more like watching Michael Jordan in his prime settling for 20 shots rather than 30. You knew that his team was still going to win, but a part of you wanted to see him drop 50 on the other team. Just because.

In concluding Trying Not to Be Evil Week, I'd like to say that I've learned a lot about myself (not true), but at least, I've proved to myself that I can be positive for one week. However, the Raconteurs concert proved something different to me. For a long time, I have lived my life by a set of rules laid down in the epic film "Teen Wolf," a set of rules engraved in stone by Michael J. Fox/Scott Howard's Coach, the legendary Bobby Finstock. So the Finstock spoke:

"Never get less than 12 hours sleep; never play cards with someone who has the same first name as a city, and never go near a lady with a tatoo of a dagger on her body. If you follow those three things everything else will be cream cheese."

These are good rules. Rules I continually try to honor. But after seeing the Raconteurs live, I can safely add a fourth rule to that list: Never Miss Jack White when he comes to play a concert in your town.

Passion of the Weiss Rating: 8.7 crucifixes


At 5:44 PM, Blogger amphimacer said...

"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." -- Nelson Algren, predating "Teen Wolf" by about two decades. These are the original three rules, which the scriptwriter in question adapted (or stole, to be a little more direct). And I think you're wrong about Led Zeppelin having a hard time gaining critical acceptance; pretty much everybody I knew thought they were excellent, from the first album on. I knew people who didn't care for the Rolling Stones in the mid-sixties, though they tended to be younger than thirteen or older than thirty-five, and I knew people who thought that Jimi Hendrix was overrated (I'm not such a big fan of the Woodstock "Star Spangled Banner" feedback session myself, or the setting of his guitar on fire at Monterey -- he was just aping The Who there), but I can't remember anyone critically carving up Zeppelin; it wouldn't have been cool.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

Perhaps it's revisionist history but in this Rolling Stone ( Dave Grohl says that they were never acclaimed. Then again he's not a critic so who knows. Plus, i also seem to recall hearing that critics HATED led Zep III, because it was too soft. From what I've read it was always that the critics never liked them because they thought they lacked originality. But oh well. I didn't live through the time so I'll take your word for it.

And about Teen Wolf...this is just must troubling...most troubling. And here I thought it was an American original.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Ian said...

When my laptop gets back into town and I have Soulseek (no way am I putting that on someone else's computer), I'll get my hands on the Raconteurs (sic?). Mostly, I get my new joints from sendspace on the Stylus board, but you should see some of the shit that goes up there.

I agree with most of your commentary, since Pitchfork all but hands you the fish, the barrel and the shotgun when you go at them. However, I think "Get Behind Me" is a more enjoyable listen than "Elephant," and it's not just because Meg gets forty seconds of signing as opposed to three minutes. "Elephant" is pretty good, but it's got some serious duds on it. This came out back when 'Fork fought against critic hyperbole instead of creating it. I think NME called "Elephant" among the twenty best albums ever made a couple of months before it even came out. I'm a sucker for the "weird" album, and "Get Behind Me Satan" was a wise move for a band that was starting to paint themselves in a corner.

And as far as the Zep thing, I think the critical revulsion only really applied to their first album. But it's morphed into a career-long argument that Creed used to justify their popularity. So I pretend it never happened.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Nate said...

I actually like Elephant better than Get Behind me Satan. But they are both very good albums. Hardest Button to button and No Faith in Medicine are two of my favs from that CD.

At 6:45 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I have to say it's a tough call between the two but Hardest Button To Button and 7 Nation Army put Elpehant over the top for me...I think that was why Get Behind Me's problem didn't sell nearly as well...Blue orchird was the worst song on the album in my opinion and it was the first single. Plus, it was weird and not a familiar sound I suppose. He definitely backed himself out of the corner and did it well. I was shocked at how well when i gave it that re-listen.

The Raconteurs album is in a totally different vein as the White Stripes work..It's just a good fun rock record. you don't think too much and it's very very listenable. I suppose I like it so much because they aren't very many good "accessible" records made today.

and by the way...your frequent soulseek referencing has gotten me hooked on it. I'm not gonna' get all sorts of spyware now am I?

At 4:36 PM, Blogger CrimeNotes said...

Agree to the accessibility judgment. I think part of it's the Brendan Benson influence. I've been listening to a lot of Brendan Benson in the past 18 months and I hear him coming through in a lot of the album. White may be the project's Michael Jordan, but Benson is Scotty Pippin-plus.


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