When Jack White debuted The White Stripes in Detroit in 1997, his band had two big selling points. Jack and his then wife Meg produced an explosive blues-rock sound marked by an almost childlike spontaneity and looseness. And they had style. With their stripped-down color palette, The White Stripes made an impact visually as well as audibly. In the decades since, Jack White has continued to emphasize design and packaging as an essential component to his music, to the extent that just about any project he’s involved with—even the ones other artists release on his Third Man Records—has panache.
That’s what makes White’s new double-disc anthology Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 mildly disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with the actual music. The set collects acoustic guitar-based songs from The White Stripes,’ The Raconteurs,’ and White’s solo albums, and while they’re not as fiery as his electric tunes, the likes of “Apple Blossom,” “White Moon,” “Hotel Yorba,” and “On And On And On” are haunting, catchy, spirited, and rooted in the best of Americana—everything that Jack White fans expect. But then those same fans probably already have these songs. Acoustic Recordings doesn’t offer much in the way of unheard music.
The Stripes-heavy first disc includes a Get Behind Me Satan outtake (the slight “City Lights”), a rare B side (“Honey, We Can’t Afford To Look This Cheap”), and White’s contribution to the Cold Mountain soundtrack. Disc two offers more for the connoisseurs, with alternate takes and performances of songs from White’s post-White Stripes career. But because these tracks often feature the backing of full bands, they don’t have a traditionally acoustic feel. On the whole, this collection has been assembled without much effort to make unexpected connections between White’s work. It doesn’t just proceed chronologically, but with a few exceptions it follows the running order of the original albums—as though someone made a “Complete Jack White” iPod playlist and then just unchecked any song with an electric guitar on it.
Does any of this matter? Fundamentally, no. Anyone who loves The White Stripes won’t complain too much about hearing the violin-wrapped lamentation “I’m Bound To Pack It Up” or the sugary crowd favorite “We’re Going To Be Friends” again. And the more sophisticated arrangements and eclectic styles on disc two make the case that White has grown significantly as an artist since breaking up with Meg. Even if his more recent music lacks the immediacy of his earlier work, there’s still plenty of earthy poetry in the raucous Blunderbuss-era B side “Machine Gun Silhouette” and in the thumping Lazaretto piano ballad “Want And Able.”
But why acoustic? Why not a straightforward “best of,” or a more conventional roundup of rarities? An album like this should reveal something about the artist, if only to highlight how an unplugged Jack White has differed over the years from his garage-rock side. Acoustic Recordings doesn’t really do that. It’s more like fragments out of context, squarely framed.