Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Introduction, and The White Stripes

Someday, this will be me.

Last year, I found myself working a job in which I had large amounts of aural free time. My workload was not particularly taxing, and I had about six hours free to listen to music on any given eight-hour work day. Add to that a ninety-minute round trip bus commute, and...well.. you get the idea. I'm not sure how people worked these jobs before the rise of the mp3 player.

Up until this point in my life, I had only been listening to classical music, and had shunned popular (read: not classical) music. But I decided it was time for a change. There was a whole field of genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres that I had yet to explore. I had been proud of my classical music snobbery, and I think classical music will always be my music of choice, but with so much free time, I wanted to try something new. I wanted to become a music snob of a different kind. I certainly have no pretensions of ever becoming that Music Dude who is really dismissive of ninety percent of the music out there and only listens to one obscure facet of some long-forgotten genre. But I thought, if I did my homework and studied hard, I might be able to hold my own in a conversation with that guy, some day.

So began my project. Each week, more or less at random, I selected an Artist of the Week on which to concentrate. That week, I would listen to as much of the discography of that artist as I could get my hands on, up to five albums. At least one of those albums I would listen to every day that week, for a total of seven times. At the end of the week, I usually know one album pretty well, have a passing acquaintance with a large bulk of the rest of that artist's repertoire, and understand where I would look next if I were to explore this artist further.

I harbor no illusions that I "get" this music after just one week. If I had exhausted the potential of music after one week, I don't think it would be very good music at all. The point of the project is more to acquaint me enough with an artist's output enough to understand where they fall within the larger history of popular music, and be able to recognize the general style of that artist. Really, I want to learn enough so I don't feel like an idiot when my much-cooler friends start talking about this music.

The editors of Charge Shot!!! have asked me to start chronicling some brief thoughts on my Artist A Week project. So you'll be joining me on the 30th week of this adventure, (though I might write up my thoughts on the earlier weeks at some point). Every week, I'll try and post some brief thoughts on that week's artist. This will not be a review, or criticism. I don't think I know nearly enough about popular music to write about this in an objective fashion, or make recommendations for others. Rather, this will just be my own feelings on this artist. For nearly every artist, this is the first time I've been exposed to them for more than a single or two.

I hope my thoughts are worth reading. Feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts in the comments section, or to correct me if I've printed something particularly erroneous. Hell, feel free to tear me to pieces. This is all new to me, and I'm having a blast, but this is supposed to be a learning experience, and you probably know more than I do.

Join me for our first group after the jump.


Artist of the Week: The White Stripes

What I Knew Before: I'd heard "Seven Nation Army" and "Fell in Love with a Girl". I once heard Terry Gross interview Jack White on "Fresh Air", with a particularly awkward segment where he refused to acknowledge if Meg White was his sister or ex-wife. And I knew of Jack White's work on the theme song for Quantum of Solace.

My Listening: My five albums for the week were De Stijl (2000), White Blood Cells (2001), Elephant (2003), Get Behind Me Satan (2005) and Icky Thump (2007). I listened to Elephant every day this week. Every other album I listened to at least three times.

What I Liked: I liked the songwriting. For every album I listened to, there were a number of riffs that stuck in my head for the rest of the day. The early discography of the White Stripes seems to rely on shorter, guitar-based songs, which I didn't like as much. Elephant was probably my favorite album, just because this was the first album in which it seemed that the songs were more than just short improvisatory pieces. There is actual structural song-writing, on Elephant, as opposed to the tracks on De Stijl and White Blood Cells that are over before they begin.

I liked their use of instruments. De Stijl, White Blood Cells and Elephant are all firmly grounded in guitar and drums, but it never gets boring or repetitive. Jack White's guitar parts always serve to accentuate some aspect of the song, but it never quite takes over and becomes virtuoso masturbation. Instead, we get some decent riffs that punctuate the verses in the perfect moment.

With Get Behind Me Satan (which I liked a good deal), Jack puts down the guitar and concentrates on the piano, with a lot of marimba parts thrown in for good measure. If you had told me that there was a rock album that featured backing marimba lines, I probably would have made an excuse to avoid the thing. But it actually works out surprisingly well for this album.

I liked Meg White's drumming. Does she have talent? No. But her minimalist approach, accompanied with a heavy bass pedal, is the perfect drum part for the unstoppable beat of "Seven Nation Army" or "Conquest".

What I Didn't Like: I didn't like Meg White's drumming. Her sole talent seems to lie in sitting behind a drum set and looking cute. While her drumming style may be the perfect accompaniment to Jack White's actual talent on some songs (see above), on other songs, it's clear her lack of skill is holding the group back. Tell me "My Doorbell" wouldn't benefit from a groovier beat. There's only so much you can do by throwing all your weight onto the bass petal on every quarter note.

On Icky Thump (which I'm not sure if I like), the guitar is back (and bluesy-er than ever), but there's also a bunch of fun extras like mariachi trumpets and something that sounds like crotales. However, the songwriting doesn't seem as solid on this album. The effects are fun, the group is clearly trying to avoid doing falling into a rut and doing the same thing again and again, but no song on Icky Thump really stuck out for me. It's probably the least catchy album of the five I listened to, while also being the most diverse.

I didn't like Meg White's singing. See "Passive Manipulation" and "It's True That We Love One Another". She can't drum either, but at least she can hide that when she needs to.

I didn't like when the group was weird for the sake of being weird. The sole annoying song on Elephant for me was "Little Acorn", which begins with some cheeseball narrator relating an inspirational story about getting through hard times. It's unnecessary, detracts from the album, and has the mark of a group striving to be different for the sole sake of being different.

What I Learned:

I learned that a good deal of time and ink has been spilt on the question of whether or not Jack White is "authentic". I think it's sort of a stupid thing to worry about. If the music is good, who cares?

I learned that they actually are a divorced couple. How awkward must that be? Do they ever fight? Did Meg get jealous when Jack dated Renée Zellwegger? Is it Jack White's own personal version of Hell to be trapped in a band with his cute, untalented ex-wife?

Cool Fact of the Week:

In 2007, the White Stripes embarked on a tour of every Canadian territory and province. It ended in St. John's, Newfoundland, where they unloaded all the equipment, played a single note (F natural), packed up, and left.

Further Exploration Would Entail:

Well, due to time reasons, I left out their debut album, The White Stripes (1999), which is probably worth a listen, though I suspect it's more of the shorter garage-rock stuff I didn't like as much. However, Jack White has also taken part in several side projects, including the bands The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, which I've been told are worth a listen.

Best Song You've Heard: "Seven Nation Army"

Best Song You Haven't Heard: "The Air Near My Fingers"

Next Week's Artist: Blur