During the craze for sci-fi classical sparked by the success of John Williams‘ score for Star Wars I bought half a double album called Classics Go Solar with a friend, for 75p, just to see if it was as awful as it sounded. It featured various fast-paced pop songs and orchestral faves, with synthesiser pings and whooshes over the top. The classical pieces were disjointed and the pop songs sounded ridiculous. It seemed like the perfect warning of what happens when you take music from one genre and transplant it, willy nilly, to another.
So I had some reservations when I slipped Aluminium into the machine. At just over 35 minutes running time it’s a rather short album of music by Jack White, rejigged for a specially chosen orchestra of thrusting young classical musicians, parts of which will be used to score a new piece choreographed by Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet this month. A limited edition run of 3333 CD albums and 999 LPs will be available to order. The project was the brainchild of Joby Talbot (ex-The Divine Comedy and now being recognised as one of the UK’s leading ‘classical’ composers) and XL record label founder Richard Russell.
From the get go The White Stripes made music that was uniquely their own, powerful, spare, containing a kind of visceral energy you rarely find, even in rock music. You can see how attractive it would be to tap into that rawness. And yet the songs are so bare, so stripped back – what will filling in between all those power chords add? Worse still, will it decimate the original impact of the music?
Despite my reservations I was surprised by the results. Removing the words frees you up to concentrate on the emotions the songs suggest, and drifting from piece to piece I found my mind making up the film and TV shows that the music could have been composed for. The opening track, the only one taken from White Blood Cells, opens with scintillating percussion which then opens up to discordant and swirling chords, Expressionist in style – Dr Mabuse would feel right at home skulking around to this.
Many of the pieces evoke a powerful sense of unease, particularly the see sawing strings and edgy plucked harp of The Hardest Button To Button. Apart from this sole contribution from Elephant, most of the songs chosen are from earlier White Stripes albums, particularly De Stijl, which gives us two of the standout tracks, Little Bird and Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me. Little Bird is given an Oriental edge, with multi layered xylophone slowly picking up pace – although it does finish up sounding a little like music to which Conan would come marching down the steps of some barbaric temple. Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me develops into a Big Band free for all of ragged, screeching horns against which piano arpeggios run up and down.
The Big Band feel continues for the following track, Astro, the only inclusion from the White Stripes’ first album. Astro begins with urgent clipped notes which gather speed until it slides into a smoother string section, and again has a highly dramatised sound which reminded me of a 60s adventure show theme – Meg White’s drumming translated into rhythmic playing from the orchestra gives many of the songs a sense of urgency but also a slightly over-dramatic fee.
The least satisfactory pieces are the slower, more delicate ones. Although I enjoyed the harp playing on I’m Bound To Pack It Up the tune meanders and although pretty it sounds most like a pop song being shoehorned into the wrong sort of whole. The same sense of uneasy compromise affects the album’s final track, Forever For Her. It’s so relentlessly bouncy and builds to such a finale that it feels to much like a Christmas jingle. It’s a pity because Aluminium contains music that should definitely be of interest to White Stripes fans, and which demonstrates that there’s more to their deceptively simple and catchy songs than is obvious at first.