Mar 072011

Detroit is a rock and roll town. The music industry and the rest of America forgot about it for about a decade or so in the ’90s, but The White Stripes put it back on the musical map in the early aughts. For Detroit rockers today though, being from the hometown of a band as huge as the White Stripes is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the duo’s existence reinvigorated the scene and validated the bands sweating it out night after night in the bars and clubs and garages. On the other hand, an entire city’s musical output is expected to have a certain sound or fit a particular mold. When Detroit label Five Three Dial Tone Records put together Hello Operator: A Tribute to the White Stripes, using mostly local bands, the question was whether to play to those expectations or go off the beaten path. Stick with the electric blues as perfected by Meg and Jack or totally reinvent the songs?

Of the 18 bands assembled it’s a pretty even split between those who stayed true to the originals and those who made major changes. All the bands, though, shared one thing in common. Almost every track on the album seems to be covered with a coating of grime, as if to say “This is the real Detroit. The White Stripes were bubblegum compared to this.” Many bands did this by cranking the distortion to 11, as Chapstik does on “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine.” Chris O turns “Screwdriver” into a haunted gypsy stomp, with bass drums mixed to subwoofer-damaging levels. “Hotel Yorba” in the hands of Mick Bassett sounds like freak folk slowed to a crawl and recorded inside a tin can. Even Lettercamp’s helium-infused transformation of “The Denial Twist” into a danceable club hit has an edge of menace lent to it by angular synths.

The White Stripes’ catalog could hardly be considered “poppy,” and yet no one here tried to lighten any of these songs (as many did in our Five Good Covers of “Seven Nation Army”). There are, however, a handful of versions that fall flat here, most of them by the brave souls who did go for reinvention.

Fans of the guitar-drums duo often overlook the third instrument: Jack White’s voice. Here too, a few bands didn’t realize that the sung hooks are often the only difference between a hit and bland noodling. Carjack’s version of “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” followed the dark mood by taking the Stripes’ relatively upbeat acoustic song and slowing it down by about half. The vocals, however, sound uninspired and trade melody for creepiness. “The Nurse” is one of those White Stripes songs that seems like it just shouldn’t work on paper and yet somehow they pull it off: Jack sings over marimba while Meg destroys her drum kit in the background. Unfortunately, Summer Lungs were not able to repeat this feat, using schizophrenic sampled bits between spoken word lyrics. With the singing removed the song is little more than noise. Human Reunion’s cover of “The Big Three Killed My Baby” turns an already dark song into a stew of distorted noise, sounding a bit like Mellow Gold-era Beck. But the overall sonics are so heavy-handed that what’s left is too dense to find any of the melody that carried the original.

If you watched the Super Bowl, you might have seen Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” commercial featuring Eminem. Despite its missteps, Hello Operator succeeds in giving us a tour of the grittier Detroit behind the sanitized HD version you seen on TV.

Hello Operator Tracklist:
01. Aquarius Void – The Big Three Killed My Baby (Live)
02. Lettercamp, “The Denial Twist”
03. Chris O., “Screwdriver”
04. Lightning Love, “Red Death at 6:14”
05. Carjack, “Sugar Never Tasted So Good”
06. The Kodaks, “I’m Bound To Pack It Up”
07. The Satin Peaches, “Bone Broke”
08. Darling Imperial, “I Can’t Wait”
09. Chapstik, “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine”
10. Illy Mack, “My Doorbell > Fell In Love With A Girl > When I Hear My Name”
11. Child Bite, “Blue Orchid”
12. Will Yates, “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman”
13. Woodman, “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”
14. Rosebud, “The Union Forever”
15. Mick Bassett, “Hotel Yorba”
16. Human Reunion, “The Big Three Killed My Baby”
17. Marc with a C, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)”
18. Summer Lungs, “The Nurse”

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