Jack White: where ‘real’ sound tops the ‘right’ sound

Let me begin by saying that I hate The White Stripes. Seriously. They stand as one of those bands that people worship that I just can’t stand. Their music was bland and predictable, and does absolutely nothing for me in any sense of the word. After they disbanded, it took me some time before I was really open to listening to Jack White’s other projects, but the man has such a large output, it’s hard to avoid him.

That being said, once I heard The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and (much later) his solo work, it became clear that he stands as a musician you simply cannot ignore if you appreciate true artistry in a musical age overloaded with mediocrity. Looking at the musical landscape of the past fifteen years, there is perhaps no other artist who has pushed the art form forward as much as White; and when you study his body of work, he eerily emulates a handful of music legends from an earlier generation.

When people attempt to say things like a musician is “the next Hendrix,” or “the new Aretha,” it is little more than musical ignorance, as the product of an influence cannot be equal to the influence itself. That is to say, if you grew up listening to Joe Strummer, you can’t be Joe Strummer, as you had other additional influences at play, making your sound a combination that is different. It is this unique combination you can hear in Jack White’s sound and approach that, even if you are not a fan of the said sound, makes him massively important in a historical sense.

The fact is, Jack White can play with any band on the planet, and his presence instantly makes the overall product better. Much in the way that Eric Clapton and Duane Allman found themselves working with a number of different groups over the course of their respective careers, White has shown his talents in everything from atmospheric electronic music (the Danger Mouse/Daniele Luppi project “Rome“) to a number of folk projects, along with his dabblings in country (his work with Loretta Lynn is superb) and others; and this of course is all added to his work in the rock arena. This sort of diversity and adaptability at such a high level of quality is less than a once-in-a-generation occurrence, and his body of work is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside those other legends.

Similarly, in many ways Jack White has innovated an entirely new sound on guitar, as the moment he begins playing, you cannot mistake his sound for that of anyone else. Clapton himself even likened his playing to another guitar god when he said, “…all the stuff he does like jumping octaves, using feedback…all in a blues motif really reminded me of what I heard when listening to Jimi Hendrix for the first time. He really seems to be taking the guitar to this whole new realm.” Though some may see this as a friendly nod to a younger artist, the reality is that White’s performances speak for themselves, and such a statement is not all that far off base. Look at the countless guitarists over the past decade, and try and find any other who has as instantly recognizable a tone as White.

But what really sets Jack White beyond any of his peers is the fact that he is truly a student of music and understands the importance of the art form on a completely different level. This past January, White’s Third Man Records released a handful of archival albums of somewhat forgotten blues artists, and the care and reverence you can hear and see on these records shows how much he appreciates those who created the path for rock and roll. Along with this, Third Man’s offices are home to one of the only known working Voice-o-Graph machines, allowing anyone to record just under two minutes of audio, having it instantly cut to vinyl. This secondary nod to the early years of rock makes his overall studio approach far more understandable, as this appreciation for an authentic, raw sound comes through in every project he touches.

When you listen to his studio work, you cannot get past the fact that it is as honest and organic a sound as possible. It’s clear that he is far more concerned with a sound being “real” as opposed to a sound being “right,” and this difference is not only one of the essential elements to his sound, but a constant reminder that even with the loads of technology musicians have at their disposal, you can’t top raw talent and a true love for musical creation.  The fact that often times, small mistakes and the “dirt” or grit of the creative process are left on the final product serves as the clearest sign that White is a man who understands that the feel of the song, the mood it creates, is a more important factor in the artistic process than polishing away every pitch or crackle that is, in essence, the true spirit of the music in question.

This is what many people simply refer to as “musical integrity,” and it is the main reason why people who may not particularly enjoy his brand of music are able to still appreciate what he means as an artist. The talents and importance of Jack White was perhaps no more obvious than in the documentary “It Might Get Loud,” where you see him working alongside Guitar God Jimmy Page, as well as The Edge from U2. While the other two players had far more experience in musical creation, White not only fit in perfectly, but when he gave critiques and suggestions to the others, they were spot-on accurate, and in most cases, heeded by his musical partners.

The reality is that one of the most common statements lobbed at the current music scene is the lack of any sort of “voice of a generation” to put alongside hallowed names from previous eras. Often using short-sighted claims that there is a lack of actual talent or understanding of music as an art form in today’s music, it becomes baffling how many people are quick to jump on this bandwagon, when the truth of the matter is that the current generation has a number of solid candidates for such a spot. Yet due to the sheer artistry he has displayed for well over a decade, as well as his seemingly endless quest to bring a deeper appreciation for all forms of music to the masses, you need not be a fan of the sound he makes to see that Jack White stands as arguably the most important musician of his generation.


Joel Freimark hosts a daily music-related webseries HERE and you can follow his daily music musings and suggestions HERE as well.