Self-invented musical Renaissance man Jack White wears many hats. He’s a frontman, guitar player, drummer, songwriter, producer and a provocateur who likes to push the envelope while gaining inspiration from roots music.
White’s work-driven agenda is sustained by the different roles he takes on and the results are varied. He’s an alternate universe vaudevillian bluesman who likes to sound like he’s playing cranked rock and roll in a 19th century saloon. It’s not simple but it fits.
Simplicity is what Jack White Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 is all about. The title accurately reflects the sounds within and the long player (26 songs) has White playing guitar and singing eccentric blues, folk and Tin Pan Alley-type songs.
The material is surprisingly consistent in production and delivery. The writing is White’s strong point here, sparse, to the point and with the wry, tongue-in-cheek delivery that’s neither serious or a put on.
To describe all the songs contained here would be pointless and boring. The album is surprising because in recent years, White’s ouput with his various groups and projects has been spectacularly uneven. Not so here.
Despite its length, the record is smooth and coherent, given its 20-year time span. Its content is derived from B-sides, alternate versions and un-released songs. Even the weirder songs have a focus that keeps them on track (White Moon, Hotel Yorba). Those recordings reveal the traditionalism that’s close to White’s heart and the acoustic context highlights this. Intricate instrumental voicings (Never Far Away) and sensitive melodies are all over the album in abundance as are examples of White’s versatility.
Some songs are childishly innocent ballads (We’re Going to be Friends). Others are haunted and world weary (You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket). There’s some fine folk hootenannies (Well It’s True That We Love One Another) and saloon rock (Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap).
The last half of the record is strong with White’s take on the sounds of yesteryear that could be transcribed into player piano. Murder ballads are a natural for him and he gets a scary one-off in Carolina Drama, a co-write with Brendan Benson.
He indulges in word play and melodic melodrama throughout with a joy that verges on manic and the lack of his electric axe doesn’t hold him back.
The album cuts away all the crap from some of White’s side projects and funnels the best intentions of his music making into his most pared-down and personal songs and performances.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a music reviewer who writes about new releases every Friday.