Leaving and/or working outside of an iconic band can result in a roller coaster of projects that often range in quality. Sometimes they are on par with what came before, and sometimes they nosedive into the gutter of forgetful trash. Rarely does it touch the magic of what made the artist popular in the first place, but it does happen.
And when it comes to Jack White of the White Stripes, a lot of what he has done outside the band that made him what he is today has been a mix bag.
I, like many, first came across the White Stripes when they released “White Blood Cells” in 2001. It hit me like a breath of fresh air. Rock and roll hadn’t died after all when the scourge of Nu Metal and Mall Punk dominated the radio, MTV and my friends’ album collections in the late 90s and early aughts. It was a long, dark journey from the rise of Korn and Limp Bizkit to the quality that the White Stripes brought back to the music scene.
The White Stripes made lo-fi, blues rock fun again. The band brought music to the basics — guitar, drum and vocals. No need for Pro Tools to make the songs nice and shiny and palatable for the radio. It was amazing. It was just Jack White and his ex-wife, Meg White. It was the first time in a long while that an indie band had broken into the mainstream when the White Stripes did it in 2001.
Each album after got bolder and more complex, but without shedding the basic quality of the band’s songwriting. The band hit it huge with 2003’s “Elephant,” when the single for “Seven Nation Army” blew up bigger than I would have ever expected for the band. The White Stripes, somehow, made an anthem that is still used at sporting events. And that in of itself is weird to think about.
Then came 2005’s “Get Behind Me Satan” and 2007’s “Icky Thump” which took things into left field even more. It was still fun, and the music was getting more and more complex, but still sounded good — and at times great. But the cracks were beginning to show, and it was evident that Jack White had become the lone driving force of the band. That is nothing new, as history has shown that successful bands usually have the driving force overtake the band, often leading to the its eminent implosion. That’s just the way things work out, I guess.
It is easy to pin all the creativity on Jack White for the White Stripes (he was the voice, guitarist and main songwriter), but as time goes on and I keep hearing project after project from him, I realized that Meg must have had some quality control over those albums (or more of a role than anyone has ever really let on), because by my calculations, Jack White on his own has not produced anything that was close to the greatness of the White Stripes.
The first of White’s outside projects I came across was The Raconteurs, a sort of indie rock supergroup White started while still in the Stripes that made a splash in 2006 with “Ready As She goes” from its first album.
I bought that album, “Broken Boy Soldiers,” listened to it a few times, and was left feeling unimpressed. Not that it was terrible, it just didn’t stand out very much. It was a bit too poppy for my taste, and remains so forgettable to me that I’m not even sure if I still own it or not. If not, after a listen on Spotify, I’m not feeling any great loss to my collection.
Their next album, “Consolers of the Lonely” came out in 2008 — a year after the White Stripes released their final album “Icky Thump.” At the time, I got it as a promo while I was working at the Electric Fetus in St. Cloud, and while again it wasn’t a bad album, it was quite a forgettable album to me. I do believe I still have that promo CD somewhere, but I’ve never been in any mood to revisit it for any reason. Another quick Spotify listen reminded me, again, it is something I can live without in my collection.
The problem with this band, for me, is it lacks the fire of what came before it (and after it). Perhaps because it is more of a collaborative effort is why it feels mixed, which is not a bad thing, but it is not something that is on par with what Jack White had proven he was able to do. It felt like White Stripes-Lite.
SIDE NOTE: I also saw The Raconteurs walking around outside First Ave in Minneapolis while I was waiting in line to see Gnarls Barkley and Peeping Tom. Nobody got out of the line to get an autograph and Jack White is shockingly pale in person.
The Dead Weather
I was really looking forward to this project when I first heard about it. I really enjoy Alison Mosshart from the Kills, and thought this would be a great project with her and White. And it certainly is a good project. I enjoy the band’s albums, but nothing the band has done has floored me. But of all White’s non-White Stripes efforts, this is the one that I’ve enjoyed the most.
Again, this is the only project White has had that comes close to what originally wowed me with the White Stripes. Its first album, “Horehound” I enjoyed quite a bit (until it was overplayed while I worked at the Electric Fetus, which tended to happen with a lot of albums). In fact, I’ve enjoyed listening to most of The Dead Weather’s output. But these albums are not something I actively revisit when I’m listening to music. The songs are good, but are not really memorable. I can’t even name a song from this band unless I’m listening to an album. But I think the potential is there for something great to come about.
Jack White’s Solo Albums
Perhaps the most baffling of White’s output after the White Stripes is his solo albums, which are quite forgettable. It is baffling in that if he was the creative genius of the White Stripes, and was free from having to collaborate in a group effort like The Raconteurs and Dead Weather, why are his solo albums so damn boring? Like his other projects, these are decent albums (2012’s “Blunderbuss” and 2014’s “Lazaretto”), but lack the magic that we heard in the White Stripes.
He certainly has good songs on these albums, and the music is eclectic in style and genre, but for me, nothing stands out. These are solid rock albums, but nothing seems to bite. Nothing hooks me in as a listener. It sounds like filler that should connect bigger, more ambitious songs together.
I do think White has the ability to create music that’s equal to — or even better than — what he did with the White Stripes, I’m just not sure if he ever will. I keep giving his side projects and solo works chances, only to be left feeling let down. Which is frustrating because I know he has the ability to make much, much better music. He just hasn’t.
I love what the White Stripes did. I am also glad the band called it quits when it did. Going out on top is something not a lot of bands get to do, and the White Stripes got to do it. And I feel like Jack White has been trying so hard to escape that legacy that he’s forgotten it’s what made him what he is today. I respect his ability to go in weird directions — hell, that’s one of the things I’ve respected most about his side projects and solo albums — but there always seems to feel like there is something missing in these projects.
Be that as it may, I will continue to follow White’s career in hopes that he will hit that magic moment once again.