Album reviews: The White Stripes – Greatest Hits, Yungblud – Weird!, and Tori Amos – Christmastide

Mark Beaumont,Roisin O'Connor and Elisa Bray
·6 min read
<p>Meg White and Jack White give us everything from retro-rock genius to pretty folk ditties</p> (Pieter M van Hattem)

Meg White and Jack White give us everything from retro-rock genius to pretty folk ditties

(Pieter M van Hattem)

The White Stripes – Greatest Hits

★★★★☆

The White Stripes, Detroit’s candy cane sorta-siblings, bestrode Noughties indie rock with a fire-blues fervour that the military might of seven entire nations couldn’t have held back. Their brilliance was in rendering the complex deceptively simple. Guitar and drums. Red and white. “Brother” and “sister”. Yet behind their cartoonish construct lay virtuosic musicianship, a secret marriage and a kaleidoscope of Motor City struggle and romance. Drummer Meg White provided a primitivist backdrop before which Jack staged vivid melodramas set to savage, electrifying riffs. They revitalised the blues for the millennium and inspired imitators as close to home as Ohio’s The Black Keys and far afield as the UK’s Royal Blood.

That said, “greatest hits” is a knowing misnomer here; fewer than half of these 26 tracks made the UK Top 40 and only one (The Stooges-go-to-Yorkshire “Icky Thump”) seriously bothered the Billboard chart. It’s a typically brash statement that allows for all manner of intriguing indulgence. The collection opens with a brace of the band’s earliest tracks: their very first, ultra-rare living room recording, “Let’s Shake Hands”, sounds like a maniacal lost Sixties blues song being played on vinyl that’s rotting off in chunks beneath the needle, while “The Big Three Killed My Baby”, seemingly recorded in a garage the size of Wookie Hole, is a desperate howl of Detroit desperation and an early hint of Jack White’s notorious temper: “I’m about to have another blow-up.”

From there on, the obvious big hitters (“The Hardest Button To Button”, frivolous folk jig “Hotel Yorba”, their impassioned take on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”) are dotted between choice cuts from across their six albums, designed to outline the variety they achieved with such limited means. The likes of “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Blue Orchid” epitomise their furious retro-rock genius, while “Slowly Turning Into You” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” expose a surreptitious seam of prog metal. Their celebrated cover of Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” showcases Jack’s emotive range; “We’re Going To Be Friends” proves their knack for a pretty folk ditty and the mood-swinging “The Nurse” is evidence that they could find their way around a tropical marimba when necessity called. “Conquest” meanwhile, with its mariachi brass and heavyweight riffs, is quite literally – in Noel Gallagher’s famous words – Zorro on doughnuts.

As enlightening as it is to give airtime to lesser-heard tracks from early albums The White Stripes and De Stijl, this would be a much sprightlier collection if formulaic blues-rock filler songs like “Screwdriver”, “Death Letter” and the dreary “I Fought Piranhas” were swapped wholesale for, say, 2007’s wonderful hair rock homage “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)”. It is, however, a mark of immense quality that 80 minutes in, Greatest Hits can still round off with a final trio of tracks as inspired as “My Doorbell”, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)” and “Seven Nation Army”. The faithful will feel more than sated, and newcomers will find more to suck on here than a peppermint bass drum. MB

YungbludWeird!

<p>Yungblud in the video for ‘Mars’</p>Press image

Yungblud in the video for ‘Mars’

Press image

★★★☆☆

Yungblud’s sound changes as often as his hair colour. One minute he’s pop, then he’s punk, then Nineties emo rock. It’s a big part of the chaotic, devil-may-care charisma that makes the Doncaster musician born Dominic Richard such an appealing prospect. Yet on his debut album, Weird!, it also threatens to become his undoing.

It’s been said enough times that younger generations of artists are far less bound by the trappings of genre than their elders. This is fine – often it’s a strength to play up to – but it occasionally results in kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome. So on “Cotton Candy”, you have Yungblud as a dead ringer for The 1975 during their best years, emulating frontman Matty Healy’s lurching delivery while backed by brisk twangs of guitar and sharp percussion. “Strawberry Lipstick” is a distorted, snarling post-punk number, adding a raunchier spin on the classic school crush anthem.

As was the problem with The 1975’s 2020 album, Notes on a Conditional Form, Yungblud wants to poke his fingers in too many pies. Weird!’s eclecticism frequently threatens to overwhelm; the Avril Lavigne references on the touching “Love Song” are numbed by “Super Dead Friends”, a squawking maelstrom somehow redolent of both The Prodigy and George Michael (it doesn’t really work). Closer “The Freakshow” echoes the baroque grandeur of Panic! At The Disco and the sardonic tone of Billie Eilish.

Where Yungblud is consistent is his lyrics. He’s got a knack for shining a light on social issues in songs that are always catchy enough to dance to, whether that’s unrequited love, mental health or gender identity. “Mars” is inspired by a transgender girl he met at one of his shows; single “God Save Me, But Don’t Drown Me Out” is a searing anthem for self-acceptance. His vocals, too, maintain that rough, gravelly tone that adds some real grit to the pop veneer – there’s just about enough of a throughline to save the album as one complete work. And really, so what if Yungblud sounds confused? Aren’t we all? ROC

Tori Amons – Christmastide

<p>Tori Amos: theatrical and haunting</p>Press image

Tori Amos: theatrical and haunting

Press image

★★★★☆

This year, Christmas songs have been wheeled out sooner than ever before (Mariah Carey’s hit the Top 40 back in mid-November – the earliest it has reappeared in the chart), and artists have felt compelled to respond in kind. Tori Amos “wanted to share to try and raise all of our spirits”.

Much more so than 2009’s holiday LP Midwinter Graces, this is no straight-forward Yuletide release. But while there are no bells or traditional numbers in sight, just thoughtfully crafted imagery of holly wreaths and midwinter to set the scene, the title-track opener is a heartening ode to hope and unity, promising that “side by side we’ll sail on a Christmastide”. It’s a folky seasonal song you can imagine being sung around the fire.

On this collection of whimsical, piano-led tunes with opaque storytelling lyrics, only the final track of four, “Better Angels”, overblows the arrangement, with rock guitar that jars with the other more stirring tracks.

The centrepiece is “Circle of Seasons”, where a fantastical narrative of “mysteries hidden for centuries will rise again” adds to the crepuscular mood. This piece of Nordic noir folkiness ripples with dramatic keys that harmonise with Amos’s vocals, as it takes its circling, mostly minor-key melody into a gloriously soaring chorus, like Santa’s sleigh caught in a thermal. Theatrical, haunting and enveloping in equal measures, it’s a song that gets under the skin.

And it’s not really the year for bells and jingles anyway, is it? EB

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