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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Live White Stripes album stays inside the lines

    What is the vocation of a live rock album anymore? In an age of digital disk jockeying, the creation of that perfect playlist no longer involves holding a tape recorder up to the stereo. YouTube can provide instantaneous footage of any concert ever performed — even that rare Zeppelin show from inside Mordor. You probably even have some sort of concert footage locked up as microscopic data in your cell phone right now.

    Whether as a consolation for listeners unable to make it out to a live show or as some source of immediacy that confirms a band’s existence in the real world, the live album is a staple of rock culture. Metallica recorded themselves with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and literally made baroque rock. The Who made, recorded and sold copies of every live show performed on their last whirlwind tour, making each unique performance a permanent, tangible rock fixture. Now, Jack and Meg White provide a live chronicle of their 2007 pan-Canadian odyssey.

    Under Great White Northern Lights is a CD/DVD combo assembled from The White Stripes’ comprehensive tour of every province and territory in Canada following their release of Icky Thump in 2007. In an unconventional excursion that landed Jack and Meg gigs at a daycare center, in a moving bus and on a fishing boat among other exotic Canadian locales, the Stripes solidified their status among the most iconic rock bands of the last decade. Without the DVD footage of their unusual tour, though, how does the CD set itself apart from other live albums?

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t — nor do the scratchy, punkish recordings set themselves apart from the Stripes’ already legendary studio efforts.

    That’s not to say the mix is unsatisfying. Northern Lights showcases an impressive diversity of tracks from the band’s career. It opens with the punk-rock explosion “”Let’s Shake Hands,”” a track available on their unreleased “”Life on the Flipsides”” collection, charges through the old (“”Blue Orchid,”” “”Black Math””) and the new (“”Icky Thump,”” “”300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues””), and finally ends with the standards “”Fell in Love with a Girl”” and “”We Are Going to Be Friends.”” The variety of material does not disappoint; what they do with it — or don’t do with it — more often does

    Bands are sometimes criticized in live performances for sounding nothing like their recordings. Northern Lights often suffers from the opposite condition: songs provide absolutely no variety from album versions. They just sound more abrasive on noise-cancelling headphones.

    There are exceptions, for better and worse. “”Ball and Biscuit,”” one of the Stripes’ quintessential freak-out blues numbers is reduced from the marathon seven-minute album version to a cursory three-minute jam that scarcely maintains the feel of the original. The potential to launch into an incendiary blues guitar solo seems overlooked.

    “”Fell in Love with a Girl,”” on the other hand, is performed at a reduced tempo, transforming it into a soulful R&B groove that gets the entire theater moaning along to the chorus.

    A seven-minute version of “”Seven Nation Army”” looks promising as the encore, but actually does not deviate from the album version, and fills in the excess time with trilling synthesizer riffs and a bagpipe coda.

    Grievances aside, a live album does not need to deviate on every track to be successful. What makes Northern Lights a worthy contender for your attention is the same thing that makes each White Stripes album a bestseller: Jack White.

    Jack’s voice warbles and cracks like a lo-fi speaker in the ballad “”Jolene,”” and his mastery of the quick, catchy guitar lead explodes out of “”I’m Slowly Turning Into You.”” Jack is no less badass in these live cuts than in the studio. But he is no more badass either, and that is where the album loses points.

    So, given the ability of any listener to assemble a White Stripes playlist comprised of higher-quality versions of all the material off of Northern Lights, what’s the appeal? The same appeal associated with any live album: an escape, if but for 90 minutes, into a musical moment in history. Just do yourselves one favor, White Stripes fans: Make sure you get the DVD too.


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