In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen the documentary version of Under Great White Northern Lights. I suspect I’d like it a lot as by all accounts it displays the band in some intimate and vulnerable moments. That’s just the kind of thing that works for a band like The White Stripes. They like to let you into their little universe and show you around.
That’s exactly what’s missing from the live album version of Northern Lights. White it’s nice to have a collection of performances from their Canadian Icky Thump tour, these just seem like live b-sides thrown into a compilation. The banter for which Jack White has become famous for is nowhere to be found here. While some dismiss this element of the live album concept, I’ve always felt that it’s important to include as it’s often among the best moments of a live concert.
Thankfully, there is still much here to enjoy. Permeating throughout the album is the Scottish bagpipes which were a surprise feature of Icky Thump. They feel more incorporated into the music in a live setting, and they provide a new interesting introduction to old Stripes standbys such as “Let’s Shake Hands.”
The synthesized keyboards also play a larger role than expected from a two piece minimalist rock band. Not only do they appear on the keyboard driven “Icky Thump,” but they take some spots in “Seven Nation Army.” In fact, they seep into many other songs and between song noise, perhaps suggesting where Jack and Meg might be moving to in the future.
Musically, the band plays closer to the book than they have been in previous tours. The biggest difference is in Meg, who’s rhythm fluctuation isn’t nearly as noticeable as in the past. It’s no surprise that the center of the sound is Jack’s guitar screeches. He’s proficient almost to a fault, as some of the tighter band play makes the music sound less dangerous.
What is most discouraging is the condition of Jack’s voice. While he has never had what anyone would describe as a traditionally good voice, he’s always been able to push his singing in whatever way required for a given song. Here, he struggles mightily on several song performances to the point where it is a distraction. Listening to him try to hit the higher notes in “Blue Orchid” is probably the lowest point on the album.
Regardless, the overall performance is pretty good. It’s just not as great as it should be. This isn’t just any band, it’s The White Stripes. In concert is where they shine, and they don’t really shine for more than a moment here or there on Under Great White Northern Lights. And it’s a shame, because nothing would make me happier as a music critic than to recommend a White Stripes album.