Album Review: The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights

March 22, 2010
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The White Stripes - Under Great White Northern LightsTitle: Under Great White Northern Lights
Artist: The White Stripes
Label: Warner/Third Man Records
Release Date: 16 March 2010
In One Word: Disappointing

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make great. And The White Stripes once were a truly great band, often mentioned in the same breath as the Strokes but completely undeserving of such treatment. The first four albums were of unparalleled excellence, each a different limb and expression of the garage rock philosophy; over-distorted and stroppy (self-titled debut), bluesy and miserable (De Stijl), noisy and earnest (White Blood Cells), and dark and lingering (Elephant). Then we had drifting with only occasional flashes of brilliance (Get Behind Me Satan) and straight-up moribund nonsense (Icky Thump). Then, on the brink of a tour, they suddenly pulled out of all their dates, and we fans were left bewildered and bored as Jack White spent the next few years playing awful classic rock in the Raconteurs and the indescribably dull, miserable Dead Weather. As the White Stripes fainted off into darkness and obscurity, we were left wondering what we’d missed with that fateful tour that never happened.

Under Great White Northern Lights shows us that the answer is ‘not much’.  It was recorded during their Canadian tour in 2007 promoting Icky Thump, and is also a film released under the same name. The album carries with it none of the aesthetic delights of the White Stripes in person; no bold strands of red and white, no elaborate stage, no glances of mischievous energy between Jack and Meg. We’re left with a minimalist document to put the money to Jack’s own self-imposed, endlessly repeated ‘just the music, bare and simple’ philosophy, and, for the first time ever, it’s hugely disappointing.

The best songs are facsimilies of the versions given on their previous live DVD, Under Blackpool Lights. It opens with renditions of “Let’s Shake Hands” and “Black Math” which sound like they were recorded in that time, all the tumbling eccentricity and energy of alienation still present. But then we start “Little Ghost”, easily the worst song from Get Behind Me Satan, a mandolin-laden Appalachian-folk song about falling in love with a ghost, but not in any sort of profound, longing-for-the-past sense, but just a straight-up, spooky-ooh-in’t-this-a-bit-strange sense. It’s the kind of horrible, teeth-bearingly sunny folk song that you see performed by third-rate Christians folk bands and you’re left longing for that moment, either 90 seconds ago or five years ago, when you were listening to Black Math. The best they have to offer us is the past.

The album then tries to get into a hard, garage groove. The spontaneity of White Stripes shows, with their lack of set lists, is lost and indiscernible as it is blatantly obvious that all these songs have been recorded at various concerts. Some old, unusual classics are wheeled out, like “The Union Forever” and “Jolene” . But these are just reminders of better times in the distant past, when they were formidable.  These songs when put on this album are just like cruel postcards from an ex-lover. Or, more accurately, finding a picture of you and this lover, in Paris, bathing in beauty, and then finding out that that lover is now a heroin-addicted North Korean prison guard, in the grimmest of all possible worlds, and the beauty of the memory serves only to mock you and itself. So, the album can’t win. We’re then given a quick tour through the new stuff, including that horrible, musical mess and lyrical meander through fields of sheer meaninglessness, Icky Thump, and the repetitive soul-dirge of “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which does mercilessly brief moments of brilliance, which fade away heartbreakingly quickly. Then there’s a version of “Fell in Love with a Girl” which sounds like a cover of the insipid Joss Stone version from a few years back.

I’m writing this from Scotland, and bagpipes introduce and conclude this record. There is also the cod-scotch folk song “Prickly Thorn (But Sweetly Worn)” on the album. I think these two things are about as good an example as you can get as to what is currently wrong with the White Stripes. After years of sparse minimalism, the White Stripes realised their self-imposed limits could only take them so far. And, as the rot set in and creative enterprise became increasingly hard, they turn to gimmicks, relying on the eccentricity which once merely bolstered their appeal, and turning this oddness into their defining feature. The songs spill out all over the album, floppy and confused, into the void, uncertain where they are going, and what they will do there, or why they’re going there at all. When once they thrashed about with angst and the beautiful, timeless vitality of being young and feeling alone (the basis for all garage rock), they now thrash against the bars of the cage they built for themselves.

© James Hampson, Music Vice

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8 Responses to Album Review: The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights

  1. JW32 on March 22, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    You clearly didn’t see a show on this tour, and your bitterness over this loss is profound. The tour was a triumph, and you are a nobody.

  2. theczub on March 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Your lack of appreciation for the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather reinforces the notion that you are not a Jack White fan, rather a sad person who finds joy stripping happiness from others.

  3. Nic on March 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    The White Stripes are not what they used to be, and in that regard I think it’s fair comment to say they have lost some of their magic. Jack’s creative departures with his other projects are because he is searching to achieve something that he can’t seem to make happen with the White Stripes. If he reaches his epiphany then we’re all going to be treated to something special, just don’t write him off yet.

  4. Jay on March 23, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    James you clearly just don’t get it. It’s pure, raw, and a sharp edge cutting into an over produced music scene. you obviously have too much time on your hands seeing as how you wrote five paragraphs saying the exact same thing reiterated and just tried to spice it up with a few fancy words to stroke off your impeccable vocabulary skills. well get this, its a great album, I bet the shows were great, Jacks a very talented man and you… obviously are not. I hope you grow into a little style

    -Jay

  5. James on March 24, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Hey guys,

    The White Stripes were my favourite band and a huge part of my life for about four years when I was a teenager, so it’s not like I hate them or anything. It’s actually how much I love their earlier stuff that meant I found the album so disappointing, and I agree with Nic (and presumably all of you) that Jack White still has great potential, like I thought ‘Effect and Cause’ off the latest album was one of the best things he’s written. It’s just moments like that are much too rare recently, very sadly.

    I’m sorry you guys didn’t agree but I didn’t really know what to write except what I think. I think we’re all aware that this doesn’t say anything about what kind of person I am.

    Thanks for taking the time to read though,

    James

  6. Brian Banks on March 24, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    JW32, James mentioned in his review that he is from Scotland, so that information should be used to fathom it unlikely that he would have caught any of the White Stripes trek across Canada. Let’s remember that this review is focused on this live CD and it might have been a very different review had James been reviewing the DVD and not the CD. I’d encourage any fan to check out the film.

    I agree with the statement that the White Stripes were at their greatest in their earlier years, but much of that is personal preference and to me they were always better when they were blissfully raw and lo-fi with just ‘that’ guitar and ‘those’ drums. I’m less of a fan of the later albums, and as a born Scot like James I also crinch a bit at the bagpipe moments, though overall Icky Thump did restore a lot of my affection for the band. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the next White Stripes studio album, whenever Jack and Meg get around to that.

    Brian, Editor

  7. Florah on April 7, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    I was not a 100% die hard white stripes fan to start with. I have been lucky to have people in my life that have had different, unique taste when it comes to music and artist. One being my boyfriend. I have learned over the 30 years of my life what the difference is between an artist and an entertainer. I watched the DVD, “Under Great White Northern Lights” and i have to say i have a new respect for them. Two people!! That is all. Some bands need 15 members. That speaks volumes. The chemistry between the two makes them sync up with their music, and the fact they go out and perform with no set list shows the dedication and love they have to their art, and themselves. They may not be the greatest band ever.. but they have a unique style and has stayed true to that. I applaud them for that. They are not some punk band reformed to pop.
    James you are entitled to your opinion, but you do not come across as a fan that you claim to be. Writing does speak volumes about the type of person you are, becomes it comes from your mind, and put on paper with your words. Stand by your beliefs, but don’t call yourself a fan if you can’t stand by the band. Everyone has a rough patch, day, year, month etc.. If they were great before they will be great again.!! And when they do, you cannot lay the claim that you have always been a fan ….

    Rock on Jack and Meg White.. your passion, love and words are beautiful..

  8. Stella on October 23, 2010 at 12:27 am

    The Strokes??? Are you f***ing out of your mind??? The White Stripes are exponentially better than The Strokes! You are a joke to your profession, sir. You claim to know music, yet you know NOTHING!

    Support Detroit Music!!

    The D still loves you, Jack and Meg. Always. <3

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