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The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)

November 6, 2013

[Album 258/1001]220px-The_White_Stripes_-_White_Blood_Cells

Jack White isn’t that great.  Meg White isn’t that bad.

I’ll explain.

When Jian Ghomeshi suggests you’re a purveyor of cool (as he did on a semi-recent Q episode), you’re doing something right.  According to many, Jack White can do no wrong.

His former bandmate? The recipient of considerably less praise.  Make that the most criticized drummer in recent memory.

So naturally, I have to play devil’s advocate.

Why I’m a fan of Meg:

– Meg can keep the beat, stay in time, job #1 of a drummer successfully complete.
– Sometimes less is more.
– The simplistic approach is appropriate for their under-produced sound (particularly on White Blood Cells, their most stripped down record from the 1001 list)
– She gives me a false sense of confidence about my drumming, “hey, I can do that!” Isn’t inspiring listeners to play along part of what music is all about?
– Despite being in one of the most popular acts of the last twenty years, she guards her privacy and is quite shy.  In an era where other celebrities (or celebutantes that don’t seem to have any discernible talent) say & do the darndest things, scratching & clawing for a smidgeon of the public’s fleeting attention – isn’t her modesty somewhat refreshing?

Why Jack ain’t so hot:

– He’s just fine, I’m not hatin’ as they say, but food doesn’t necessarily taste better after listening to White Blood Cells.
– When I play hockey with less skilled athletes, the relativism makes me look better than I actually am.  When Jack plays guitar in The White Stripes…
– Much like Kurt Cobain, there’s no denying he is a significant guitarist.  Not for technical proficiency, more so for writing simple riffs/progressions that resonated.  So simple guitar = good, simple drums = bad?
– There tends to be a critical bias praising groups at the beginning of a movement.  Think Nirvana again with the much maligned term “grunge.”  The White Stripes were at the forefront of the early 21st Century Garage Rock Revival.  Better groups have come and gone but as a trailblazer, The White Stripes (specifically Jack) benefit from the trailblazer bias.
– The right timing, the right packaging.  The late 90s were not memorable years in music history.  The group that brings respectability/excitement back to music gets the acclaim.  Did I mention Nirvana?  Kurt & Co. burst onto the scene with Nevermind, quickly bringing an end to hair metal (to the delight of many but much to the chagrin of some of my fellow bloggers!).  Ten years later, The White Stripes reclaimed the airwaves from the manufactured Boy Band/Girl Band clones.  The confusing back story (husband/wife? brother/sister?) and consistent red & white branding didn’t hurt.

All somewhat tongue-in-cheek of course, clearly there are other reasons he and the group are so revered.  I just can’t help but defend an underdog and at least file down the pedestal upon which some seemingly critically immune artists are placed.

Jack White appears in Movember as I thought he was sporting a pencil thin moustache in this Get Behind Me Satan cover photo:


After looking at other photos from that era, I think he’s also got a small chin beard buried in the shadow.  Ahh well, life will go on somehow!

Enough about moustaches, back to the music.  We’re Going to be Friends is a classic, with or without the great Napoleon Dynamite association.  Fell in Love With a Girl isn’t far from that status & I could have easily been tricked into believing that The Same Boy You’ve Always Known was a strong unreleased Age of Electric track.

Listening to this one back-to-back with A Night At The Opera (review to follow later this week) was a fun experience as they really represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of production.  Both have some solid songs, just very different recording strategies.

Overall, White Blood Cells has a good energy, a good vibe, and it was indisputably good for the direction of popular music in 2001.

In Weezer’s Heart Songs, there’s a nice sequence where Rivers describes his inspiration to play in a band:

“Back in 1991, I wasn’t havin’ any fun
‘Til my roommate said, “Come on and put a brand new record on”
Had a baby on it, he was naked on it
Then I heard the chords that broke the chains I had upon me…”

For many of my generation, Nevermind was that eye-opening, life-changing album.  I’m not sure what Jack White’s essential formative album was; mine was probably The Hip’s Fully Completely.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a younger generation of musicians that feel the same way about White Blood Cells (or perhaps, more likely, its followup Elephant).

From → 2000s

  1. You pretty much captured my feelings on The White Stripes here, and specifically Jack White. I like some of their stuff but I’ve never been passionate about them. Perhaps if I was younger and had never heard early punk or classic blues I would think he was the most groundbreaking musician of all time. As a drummer myself, I have no strong feelings either way about Meg, but I’ve also defended her “abilities” from time to time (much like I’ve done for Ringo Starr & Charlie Watts, two guys who don’t seem like virtuosos to many but are much more integral to the sound of their respective bands that a lot of fans give them credit for).

    I have to admit never hearing any White Stripes album from start to finish. A friend of mine who loves them made me a CD compilation with something like 22 songs from their first 4-5 albums and that’s always been sufficient for me.

    Good music, great image & perfect timing is what I give them credit for.

    • If you ever make a White Stripes ‘catalog or compilation?’ post – I’d vote for a properly selected compilation. White Blood Cells has 16 tracks and 16 tracks of just guitar + drums is kind of like the gimmick of the two-person band: refreshingly raw at first, but wears thin after a while.

      Later albums had some more diverse sounds but a handful of the best from each would be plenty for me.

      Nice point about the timing for us as listeners – if I’d been a few years younger at the time of release, this blog post may have been much different!

    • “much like I’ve done for Ringo Starr & Charlie Watts, two guys who don’t seem like virtuosos to many but are much more integral to the sound of their respective bands that a lot of fans give them credit for”

      Certainly anyone with any idea about drumming, not just good drummers, would recognize how vital Ringo was to the Beatles. OK, maybe not the technician Pierre Moerlen was, or Neil Peart is (leaving out folks like Billy Cobham who, to me, seem all technique; I like drummers with both technique and, well, “soul”), but definitely a very good drummer. Listen to “Let It Be”, “Rain”, “Ticket to Ride”, “A Day in the Life” etc for some truly great drumming. Back in the times when most rock drummers were basically playing boom-chick accompaniment, Ringo was crafting drum parts to fit the songs, even in the very early days. Think about how integral and important the drums in “Please Please Me” are. With “She Loves You”, most people will probably recognize the song just from the opening drum beats.

      One thing I don’t really understand is how writing credits are assigned. While it is not only drummers who might suffer here, they probably suffer more than others. For example, Neil Peart normally has a credit for the music only for instrumentals. Although people like David Bowie might write out the sax solo and get a session musician to play it, that is certainly not the case with Peart’s drum parts. In the case of band members (as opposed to session players), maybe some didn’t really contribute but played more or less what they were told (Jeffrey Hammond in Tull, say—excellent player, definitely an integral part of the band, but practically no creative input as far as the music went), but surely people like Ringo and Charlie Watts and Keith Moon contribute something substantial in that the songs would have turned out very differently with a different drummer. Apparently Nico McBrain is quite important to Steve Harris when writing songs, but he has practically no writing credits. Also, this apparently influences to a large degree which band member gets how much money.

      If the rule is that by writing the text, the chord progression and the vocal melody, you legally write the whole song, then why do people like Martin Barre, Keith Moon etc agree to have a huge input but reap little reward?

      • Phillip, that’s a grey area in the music business that’s handled in various ways depending on the artist. Although I’ve played with dozens of bands over the years, I’ve never gotten to the point of being signed to a label where money would be involved so it didn’t become an issue. However, I have discussed it with other musicians and everyone has a different point of view. If I’m hired as a session musician, even if I offer my creativity I can’t expect to get a writing credit. Or a similar situation might involve being part of a songwriter’s band, like Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. Usually those artists pay the band a salary regardless of each musician’s input. If he/she feels they deserve a writing credit, it’s something to bring up with the artist at that point. Billy Joel’s longtime drummer, Liberty DeVitto, sued him years later for unpaid publishing royalties, and even though I agree that DeVitto’s drumming was an integral part of Joel’s recordings, he waited too long.

        The other side of the coin is if you’re part of a band. Some bands agree to split publishing equally regardless of who brings in the original tune, so everyone shares in the success in the same way that they share in the creative process. Other bands split things based solely on who brought the original song idea in, even if it’s drastically reworked by the band. I don’t agree with this, but then again I’m a drummer and haven’t written anything from scratch. However, in many bands I’ve come up with arrangement ideas, backing vocals, etc that made the songs catchier & more diverse. Had any of those bands gotten signed, I would have requested (or demanded) at least a portion of the publishing. Who knows where that would have gotten me.

        I realize I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic, but I don’t want to hijack this post.

      • It’s a good discussion – hijacking posts for such purposes is encouraged!

        The Smiths seem to be examples of the way to do this properly and the way NOT to do this.

        On their final album, Stephen Street started as the engineer but ended up chipping in a bunch of ideas along the way. He asked, and Morrissey/Marr agreed to switch his title to co-producer, thus entitling him to more royalties.

        However they blew it with Andy Rourke & Mike Joyce (bass + drums) – for whatever reason, the full band didn’t have to sign the initial contract with Rough Trade. Unbeknowst to the rhythm section, because of their role as credited songwriters (Morrissey words, Marr music) the split was Morrissey 40- Marr 40- Joyce 10- Rourke 10. It was only after the band broke up that Joyce & Rourke realized this and it culminated in a nasty 90’s court case (effectively ending the chances of a reunion).

        Rourke & Joyce were hardly spare parts, so I can see why they felt ripped off. I suppose the takeaway advice would be make sure everyone is clear on everything IN WRITING from the start. It’s sad to think of it in cold, contractual terms (sort of the antithesis of music being created organically) but I guess it is called the “music business.”

        Full credit to the nicest guy in the business, Dave Grohl. From what I gather, he gave the songwriting credit to “Foo Fighters” on the first album, even though with the exception of a single guitar track, he wrote and played the whole record by himself!

      • Interesting details about The Smiths. Believe it or not I actually think the 40/40/10/10 split can be fair depending on each member’s contributions. If someone comes in with a basic structure of the song, with chords, lyrics, verses, choruses, a bridge, etc., that’s a big chunk of the creative process. By tweaking it with rhythmic ideas, backing vocals and other structural suggestions, I can’t claim to be an equal contributor and I might be happy with 10% in that case. There have been instances where band members contribute a lot but only the writer of the original outline of the song gets any royalties, and that’s not fair (or conducive to long-term band harmony).

        Not sure if your Grohl example works here, unless he actually gave publishing royalties to the band members who joined after he recorded the album mostly by himself. I think he was trying to be incognito on that album so the writing credit may have been his way of hiding behind a fictional band name. I won’t argue that he does seem like a super nice guy (even if at least one of his former band members would disagree).

      • Ahh that’s quite possible as well – I think I had originally gotten that from a Grohl biography I read years ago. The author may have been viewing it through a fan’s lens and it also may have fit the narrative better (talking about Grohl rejecting the tabloid lifestyle, not impressed with pretentiousness of other stadium bands) – not sure if any royalties were shared in the end.

        I’d imagine being the drummer in his band wouldn’t be the easiest gig in the world!

        Grohl gives Jack White a run for his money when it comes to ‘associated acts’ – I have to admire that relentless desire to keep making new music.

        I don’t pretend to understand how it always ends up happening – but regardless of where the discussion leads, somehow it’s back where it started!

  2. I really enjoyed this, thanks for taking the time to write it and put it all together. I own only one WS album – Elephant. I like it just fine, but it doesn’t come out too often. I prefer the second Raconteurs album. There’s a song on there called Rich Kid Blues that blows my mind!

    • Thanks Mike, much appreciated.

      I was at a friend’s house for dinner recently and The White Stripes came up on a Songza playlist (I believe the app’s playlist was called handclapping and footstompin’). In that context, I found myself saying, “White Stripes, nice!” but I don’t think the albums will come out too frequently for me either.

      I don’t think I’ve heard any of The Raconteurs records (or any full albums from White’s other projects for that matter). Rich Kid Blues though – nice title!

      • White has so many side projects that I can’t keep track of them. His influences must be many.

      • I love the Raconteurs. I may be one of the few people who don’t think of it as a Jack White side project. Having been a Brendan Benson fan for years, I still think of them as a Benson project with some guy named White helping him out. Haha.

      • I think it was Jim Cuddy (of Blue Rodeo) I was listening to being interviewed talking about how the term ‘solo/side project’ is misleading. Side project seems to imply ‘not full energy/commitment/attention’ and solo diminishes the contribution of the musicians in said ‘solo/side project.’

        I like that Benson lens Rich – I may have to start thinking of Wings as Denny Laine’s old group with some chap named Paul along for the ride!

        White’s “associated acts” list on wikipedia is hilariously long, collaborating with everyone from Norah Jones to Stephen Colbert.

  3. Definitely on my list of most over-rated bands, up there with T-Rex, Sigue Sigue Sputnik etc.

  4. Can you put up an RSS feed for comments?

    • I’ve been looking at a few help forums to see how to set it up – Rich/Mike do you know how to set up an RSS feed for Comments? I’ve never set up RSS for anything before so I’m woefully under-educated on the topic!
      The closest thing I could find suggested typing in and then subscribing. Does that work?

      • Sorry to say that I don’t know anything about this. A year or two ago someone asked me why I didn’t have an RSS feed (it might have been Phillip, actually), and while I was researching it the person discovered that it was automatically set up by WordPress. Sadly, I’m not terribly tech savvy so I can’t offer much beyond that.

      • Yes, that works!

      • Excellent!

      • Leave out “/comments” and you get a feed for posts. Probably works on all WordPress sites.

      • You can also use bloglovin for a type of RSS feed. A lot of people have turned to that with the loss of google reader

      • Good to know, thanks!

  5. I absolutely am in love with this album! Sorry but I love Jack White 🙂

    • Nothing wrong with that, not to worry!
      I think Get Behind Me Satan is my favourite of the 3 I’ve heard – would you say White Blood Cells is their finest?

      • here’s the thing about the white stripes, i really do love them but I don’t think they have one perfect album, I think as a whole they are all good but one does not stick out in my mind as the best. I do however love jack white’s solo stuff and especially his side project of the Raconteurs, I personally think those are better than most of the White Stripes stuff. Thoughts?

      • Sadly haven’t heard any post-White Stripes full albums, I liked the singles I’ve heard though. Based on conversations with other Jack White fans, the consensus seems to be his work with the Raconteurs is the best of the bunch!

      • yes i would agree, i have been getting really into the Dead Weather recently as well

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