No one can deny the talent and effort Jack White has exuded with each and every one of his records but his recent release, Acoustic Recordings 1998–2016, has left this fan a bit puzzled and underwhelmed.
So, what exactly is Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016? Well, the album title should be quite indicative of its contents but that right there is where the confusion begins. Shortly before the collections’ release, Third Man Records put out a video announcing that Acoustic Recordings would be composed of “alternate acoustic versions, remixed and remastered” spanning across 26 studio tracks from the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Jack White solo releases. So far so good, right? Jack then went on to explain in an NPR interview that the upcoming release would not only be a collection of acoustic songs but also “a record to show where all these things begin” by taking electric heavy songs, stripping them to their bare acoustic bones in an effort to “let people hear the way it (the song) started off”. At this point it seemed that Acoustic Recordings was going to fit nicely among other iconic “unplugged” records (Nirvana, Eric Clapton, Alice in Chains)with not only acoustic classics such as Never Far Away and Hotel Yorba but with demos of other electric heavy Jack White classics like Seven Nation Army perhaps? Yeah, perhaps not…
Quite frankly, Acoustic Recordings is not an acoustic album at all, not as a whole that is. In fact, I dare to bet that if I presented you with this album (had you no previous knowledge of its contents or of White’s intention) you wouldn’t be able to guess what the common theme of the record was. Sure, the album begins with expected stripped down acoustic classics like Sugar Never Tasted So Good and We’re Going to Be Friends but by the end of the first disc you’ll start to notice less and less focus on the acoustic guitar. By the second disc you’ll be asking yourself “is there even an acoustic guitar in this song?” because the other instruments like electric piano, fiddle and steel guitar dominate the tracks. It’s a bit hard to put into words (great thing for a writer to say, right?) but the album just doesn’t feel like an acoustic collection but rather a random assortment of songs across various genres.
My next gripe with Acoustic Recordings lies with the alternate takes and stripped down remixes advertised for the collection. To my non-musically-trained ears every “remixed” or “alternate” track from the collection sounds just about the same as the original album versions of each song. Like I said, I am no musician and I don’t know every note to every Jack White song by memory but I do own just about every album he’s put out and even I would have to play the tracks side by side to tell you which song is the remix and which is the original. It’s disappointing because one would expect to hear barebones acoustic demos or at the very least extensively reworked acoustic versions of electric heavy songs (I.E. Clapton’s Layla) but this album fails to deliver in both departments.
One of the album’s biggest selling points (that also generated the most hype) is its inclusion of a “lost” White Stripes song, their first in many years. The track, titled City Lights, is not terrible but it falls way short of what I would come to expect from a White Stripes single and I can see how it ended up on the cutting room floor. City Lights features no real chorus, or even verses for that matter, and just seems to be more of an exercise for Jack in writing as he plucks a guitar and throws lyrics at a wall for five lengthy minutes while Meg shakes a maraca.
I have to ask myself “who is this album for?” while listening to Acoustic Recordings. If you’re a fan of Jack White you most likely will already have every track on the album (with exception to City Lights and a B-Side or two). If you’re not a fan but want to check out what Jack White is all about, this album is a poor representation of his musical range. If you’re a fan of acoustic or “unplugged” albums in general and you think Acoustic Recordings falls in line with that category you’re in for a shock as well.
As I said above, I own all of Jacks records because I am a fan but this collection is confusing and disappointing with its lack of direction and it really comes off as a simple cash grab more than anything. This idea is further cemented when you notice the run time is 85 minutes stretched over two discs. Had Jack cut two or three songs off of this collection he could have fit this entire album on one disc and cut the price in half. My negative critique only lies with the collection itself but the songs within the album are great so I don’t feel right giving Acoustic Recordings a poor score so instead I’ll give no score at all and simply suggest you skip this release whether you’re a fan of Jacks or not.