The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights

Under Great White Northern Lights (2010)

A- 

1. Let’s Shake Hands 2. Black Math 3. Little Ghost 4. Blue Orchid 5. The Union Forever 6. Ball And Biscuit 7. Icky Thump 8. I’m Slowly Turning Into You 9. Jolene 10. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues 11. We’re Going To Be Friends 12. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself 13. Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn 14. Fell In Love With A Girl 15. When I Hear My Name 16. Seven Nation Army 17. End

 

In possibly the weirdest touring decision of all time, Jack and Meg decided to devote a leg of the Icky Thump tour to hitting every province in Canada. Even the ones that sport no more of a population than three bearded fishermen, twelve Eskimos, and 8,000 arctic seals. Fortunately seals make for an excellent crowd at a rock concert—hey, they know how to clap, right?—so the tour was a success. Since it also turned out to be the final White Stripes live excursion, Under Great White Northern Lights, the live album/soundtrack to the concert film/band documentary of the same name, benefits from a retroactive swan song element… and it does a good job of playing that part. The Stripes were legendary for transcendental, off the rails live shows, and a standard “Jack and Meg Play Seven Nation Army and 12 Other Good-Time Hits!” live album, which they so easily could have made, would probably have come out looking pale in the face of that reputation. But Northern Lights does a pretty good job reflecting the unpredictability and quirk of their live act. Oh, and the super heavy rocking fury. That too.

I could quibble slightly with the setlist, which eschews some of the band’s live stalwarts for one or two too many tracks that add nothing to their studio versions except crowd noise (no “Death Letter,” but a boring crowd sing-along of “We’re Going To Be Friends?” And is there anybody in the entire world whose life is improved by a live version of “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn?”). But for every instance where that occurs, there are several more kickass surprises, like a live introduction by a bagpipe troupe leading into a furious rendition of the band’s debut single “Let’s Shake Hands.” Straightforward, if extremely crunchy renditions of “Black Math” and “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” are the exception rather than the rule, with most songs furiously veering off into unexpected improvised riffs (“Blue Orchid”), rhythmic variations (“Icky Thump”) and impromptu covers (Jack plays a verse of “Ball And Biscuit” on the organ, gets bored, and then does a medley of Robert Johnson excerpts). Jack’s vocal performances range from merely deeply impassioned (his tormented, gender-bending take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”) to wildly manic (“Let’s Shake Hands,” “Black Math”) to the complete demented lunacy he achieves on “The Union Forever,” which completely kicks the shit out of the White Blood Cells version by transforming it from a weird, disjointed mood piece to a fully-fanged arena rock beast.

As for the movie, it’s pretty darn good, though no less cagey and mysterious about the band’s inner sanctum than you might expect. There’s a scene at the end where Jack and Meg are sitting at a piano and Meg starts crying, but we’re never told why. I, like most people, assume it has something to do with the acute anxiety she had that felled the rest of the Icky Thump tour and ultimately, as it turned out, led to the end of the White Stripes. But we’ll never know for sure, just like we’ll probably never know the real story behind Jack and Meg’s relationship, or behind why they decided to break up. We can be quite sure that Jack will probably never let us figure all that stuff out. He’d rather just have us remember the much more important fact that the White Stripes wrote some pretty darn good songs and put on a kickass show. Here’s proof.



2 Comments

  1. Emily wrote:

    This is a pretty kickass compilation – though I totally have to agree about the inclusion of “Prickly Thorn”. I absolutely LOVE the version of Ball and Biscuit on this record [and this may or may not be because of the part where Jack says ” Don’t worry, I like all you other girls too”] and the cut of I’m Slowly Turning Into You on this made me really like the song when I wasn’t so hot on the studio version. And having a live version of Let’s Shake Hands was worth the price of the CD, I’d say. Good stuff.

  2. Joseph wrote:

    Ahem. She’s crying at the end because White Moon is the saddest fucking song of all time, something YOU can’t seem to understand!


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