Set on Shuffle: Jack White

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Prelude

Here we are, at it again with another installment of Set on Shuffle, our trifecta approach to music criticism. This time around, in belated honor of last month’s Lazaretto reminding everybody that Jack White is still one of the most important alt rock musicians in the game (even if he is just the one Stripe), we’ve decided to take a three-pronged approach to breaking down his music. We have a review from the White Stripes days, one from a side-project super-group (The Raconteurs), as well as White’s last solo release. Not to put too fine or cheesy a point on it, but join us as we take a look at Jack White’s full “spectrum.”

The Reviews

Allen

Album Title: Elephant by The White StripesImpression: What an interesting phenomenon, The White Stripes are. Jack White, known mostly for his abrasive attitude towards press and celebrities paired up with Meg White, the quiet, pensive type. After an entire decade of sadness and grunge, the 2000s came around to bring back positivity. And although Elephant isn’t a particularly uplifting album, it blends old and new styles in a refreshing way. The intentional lack of production value shows, but starting off with the legendary riff of “Seven Nation Army” pretty much guarantees you have a good album on your hands. It’s punchy, memorable, and incredibly dense. More than anything, Elephant is an album where Jack’s vocals ride passenger to instruments almost all the time. I kept getting an image of a young impressionable kid listening to this abum during songs like “Black Math” and “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” Even Meg gets to take a crack at singing on “In The Cold, Cold Night”, and it’s one of the most jarring transitions of the entire album. Basically from “Ball and Biscuit” onward, every guitar solo is incredible, and then the whole thing ends with a weirdly placid three-way conversation between Jack, Meg, and Jack’s “new girlfriend” Holly, who may or may not actually have been his girlfriend at the time. It’s just really refreshing to listen to the point where rock music returned to its roots, and called back to the correct influences for melody and inspiration.

Favorite Track: “Hypnotize” wins out for this one, mainly because the guitar work is on another level. Contemporaries like The Arctic Monkeys had good reason to be inspired by tracks like this, and even though it’s very short, the fact that half of it is straight up shredding is so exemplary of The White Stripes “fuck your rules and structure” mentality.

Take-Away: The lyrics to all of Elephant paint a really vivid image, but nothing beats out the bass lines and solos on this album. They’re truly something to behold, and each one is uniquely memorable.

James

Album Title: Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs

Impression:  The first song, and probably the most famous Raconteurs song, is the little diddy “Steady as She Goes.” As I have alluded to before, I like rock-based punk songs with interesting transitions. The rhythmic intensity provides a good transition into the album, a great hook for what is a good album. The tone immediately starts to slow down, with a more balladesque song titled “Hands.” The song is energetic, albeit at a much slower pace than the opening. The album maintains an even keel for the most part, a mixture of energy, but at a much slower pace than the introductory song. The focus in these parts seems to be devoted to the production, with a very polished product. As the album nears its end, the songs start to slow down, draining the energy down till the final track “Blue Veins.” The album feels like it covers the life and death of a person, from the hectic aftermath of birth to the eventual fade-out into the grave.

Favorite Track: “Broken Boy Soldier” From the beginning, the song started off with a cool instrumental section. While the tempo kept with the theme of the album-steady with a beat- the vocals in this piece were highly stylized, giving everything a somewhat ethereal tone. The tune was very catchy, and tells a particular story, with some well-placed riffs in the middle of the song.

Take-Away: Throbbing. A weird choice of words, but this album throbs. The energy and the pacing contribute to the feeling, with huge power and a steady rhythm. The album does not want for finish, and brings together a production in a great, professional way.

Magellan

Album Title: Blunderbuss by Jack White

Impression: You’ll already know this if you read last week’s Three By Three on eponymous albums, but I’m going to say it again anyway: I’m a big White Stripes fan. Now, granted I came to them fairly late, to the point that I think they had already broken up by the time I first listened to White Blood Cells. That being said, I instantly fell in love with the band, so naturally I’ll gladly devour anything else Jack White chooses to do with at least half a smile on my face. This is especially true of Blunderbuss, his explosive solo premiere. And, I don’t mean explosive in a grungy, pounding, “Jimmy the Exploder” sort of way. I mean explosive in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of some of these songs. From the very first song (“Missing Pieces”) Jack White lets you know what he can do with layered sound and measured pace, creating music that is much more meditative than his earlier work, but no less powerful or expressive. He also follows that up with “Sixteen Saltines,” a show-don’t-tell way to remind you that he can still pump out that same high-octane shredding that you know and love. The album does take a bit of a dip in the middle (from “Love Interruption” through “Weep Themselves to Sleep”), if only because of the overall slower tempo. White reinvigorates the record with “I’m Shakin’,” a deceptively by-the-numbers blues tune that accentuates his ability to weave together traditional and modern aesthetics to create something truly fantastic. The album then winds down, finishing with the decent “Take Me With You When You Go.” In terms of final tracks it’s nothing to write home about, but it fits the album fairly well.

Favorite Track: “Freedom at 21” has to get my vote, if only because it displays the full range of what White is able to accomplish in this album. It weaves through layers of musical complexity, from the verse in which his vocals and the rhythm guitar are stereo-split, to the multi-instrumental crescendo that leads into a wicked guitar solo. I also like the falsetto thing he does, it’s a nice vocal touch that makes the song that much more quirky and interesting.

Take-Away: Give it a listen. Although not as charming or memorable as a given White Stripes album, there’s still plenty to love on this record. The guitar work alone is enough to keep you enthralled, and I would argue that this is a better entry-point into Jack White as a musician than Lazaretto.

Epilogue

There you have it, a colorful look at the three primary versions of Jack White that are out there to be consumed. If you have strong opinions about these reviews, or just want to let us know about your favorite tracks, go ahead and respond in the comments below. In the meantime, we’ll be in the garage blasting “Fell in Love With a Girl” on a loop.

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Set on Shuffle: Broken Bells

Broken BellsPrelude

We here at Pop Modern are experimenting with some new forms of collaborative content, and we thought a natural place to start with our new forays into group talk would be music. With that in mind, we present the first installment of “Set on Shuffle,” a trio of album reviews all centered around a common theme. Some installments will have all albums chosen by one of us, and some of them will be conducted in the round. This time around, Magellan wanted to honor the release of the new Broken Bells album next month by looking at the previous work of its collaborators (The Shins frontman James Mercer and Danger Mouse), as well as the duo’s eponymous first release.

The Reviews

Allen

Album Title: 
Wincing The Night Away by The Shins
Impression: With absolutely no exposure to The Shins other than passing words of praise, I was pleasantly surprised by Wincing The Night Away. It starts off kind of rocky, but James Mercer’s vocals shine through from the first track. “Australia” was mostly impressive because it made me enjoy banjo music, and it was the point at which I realized that The Shins are doing cool things with chord progression. After the instrumental “Pam Berry”, the album hits this really interesting tone, mixing surprisingly introspective lyrics with dischordant instruments. The random string instruments on “Sea Legs,” the darker tone of “Red Rabbits,” and then, as the album winds to a close, I realized something miraculous. These seemingly disparate, off-beat sound choices actually complement Mercer’s vocals. The last few tracks did some interesting things experimentally, but I feel like Wincing The Night Away really hit its stride around the middle. Even when I felt like I was just listening to Hey Ocean’s Is (a similarly chill, yet more pop-ish album), the production of this album makes it unique. By the time I was listening to “A Comet Appears” and the vocals were fading out, I was legitimately bummed it was over. Fortunately, the replay button was just a push away.
Favorite Track: My favorite track has to be either “Turn On Me” or “Australia”. “Turn On Me” is just so moody and pleasant, which is kind of how I felt about the whole album. And “Australia” is a trip through all sorts of musical styles, and I came out of it a big fan of The Shins.
Take-Away: I’d say Essential Listening if you want something different. The songs bear similarities to contemporary artists, but nobody is doing the things that The Shins did in Wincing The Night Away. It’s a beautiful, self-contained bit of musical sweetness, ready to put you to sleep on one track or have you air drumming in the next.

James

Album Title: St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley
Album Impression: Every once in a while, I am asked to step outside my usual limited experience, and asked to participate in something I would normally never do. This album was a unique experience for me, in the sense that I never have really listened to Gospel music at any great length. The fact of the matter is that the gospel-inspired techno music provides a gorgeous blend of emotion and cold sound. At its best, the album manages to combine the two musical genres well, mixing them into a coherent piece of work that showcases the talents of both artists. At its worst, it tended towards one genre, to the exclusion of the other. Both Cee Lo Green and Danger Mouse are immensely talented, and the frenetic vibes that come from some of their songs balance well against the more ballad-esque pieces. The production value is through the roof, and each of the artists seems to have found their own particular niche.
Favorite Track: “Crazy.” Even though it’s been played to a great extent, it still has the soul and energy that really shines through.
Take-Away: Worth a Listen

Magellan

Album Title: Broken Bells by Broken Bells
Impression: I’m a huge fan of The Shins, so I may be going into this album with a taste bias. That is to say, there’s enough carry-over of that airy, atmospheric quality that Mercer brings into his Shins songs that every song on Broken Bells has something for me to like. From the earworm perfection right out of the gate with “The High Road,” to the vocal effects throughout “Vaporize,” to the high-pitched verses and hand-clapping of “The Ghost Inside,” this album drips with the kind of vocal sound that weaves its way through some of The Shins’ best work. That isn’t to ignore what Danger Mouse brings to the table, of course, since the instrumental flourishes throughout do a lot to give the album its own unique flavor, to create a musical landscape that really can’t be replicated anywhere else. If you want songs that indicate this point, play “Your Head Is On Fire” or “Sailing To Nowhere.” Of course, if you listen to all these songs, you may come to the same conclusion I did, which is that they all sound fairly similar. This collaboration births a groovy twist on the Shins style, but it doesn’t do much else. All of the tracks are around the same speed, with similar-sounding instrumentation. There just isn’t much motion throughout the album, which, upon attempts to re-listen, has made it hard for me to want to jam along to anything past the first track.
Favorite Track: “The High Road” is both the first track on the album and the most popular for a reason: it’s the most distinctive of the bunch. The whole album, like I’ve said, has a wonderful ambiance to it, but when it comes to picking a single track and labeling it the best, one need not go further than “The High Road.”
Take-Away: Definitely listen to “The High Road.” If you like the sound, or if you’re a huge fan of either The Shins or Gnarls Barkley, I would recommend listening to a few tracks and deciding for yourself. Otherwise, just listen to the one song and call it a day.

Epilogue

And that’s it, the three-album primer to get you ready to listen to After the Disco, which is set to drop on February 4th. If you disagree with any of our points, you want to champion a particular song that we didn’t mention, or you want to offer up a suggestion for the next installment of Set on Shuffle, let us know in the comments below.