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Five great White Stripes covers: Dylan, Beefheart, Son House and more

February 3, 2011 |  3:31 pm

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The White Stripes announced their break up Wednesday, triggering the (St. James Infirmary) Blues among Internet comment sections, your cool uncle and lovers of primary color schemes and electric guitar everywhere. For purposes of posterity, self-aggrandizement and potentially alienating my editors, this writer's eulogy can be found here.

1,200 words can't sum up the impact and influence of Jack and Meg White. In a rock era in which commercial and critical fortunes are starkly divergent, the Stripes were the rare adhesive. They were outliers capable of earning airplay on KROQ, MTV and NPR. Maybe the only band under 35 capable of getting play on classic rock radio. KIIS-FM probably even spun "Seven Nation Army" a few times. 

One of the best measures of a band's versatility is its ability to perform cover songs. With the exception of My Morning Jacket, none of the White Stripes' peers could match their necromantic art of reanimation. In the process, the band exposed a generation to the old masters. In the interest of celebrating the band's stellar run, here are five of the White Stripes' finest renditions.

  • "One More Cup of Coffee" (Original version, Bob Dylan)

Jack White once claimed that he had three fathers: his biological dad, God and Bob Dylan. The original composer of "One More Cup of Coffee" returned the compliment by asking White to cover an unfinished Hank Williams song for a still unreleased compilation. What was once (presumably) an anguished lament to Dylan's ex-wife becomes a forceful stomp -- more espresso jolt than drip blend. United by their love of the Delta blues and baleful country ballads, White and Dylan tap into the same reservoir of the imagination: a romantic longing for a halcyon past that they're too smart to entirely believe in. 

  • "Party of Special Things to Do" (Original version, Captain Beefheart)

Originally released alongside "Ashtray Heart" and "China Pig" for the Sub Pop Singles club, "Party of Special Things to Do" pays homage to the deranged blues of the late Captain Beefheart. Subtly indebted to Don Van Vliet's madman yawp and serrated re-imaginings of blues riffs mirrors, White expands upon the former's wild style.

  • "Death Letter" (Original version, Son House)

Listen to the Son House version first and soak up the weary, ragged spiritual. Then watch the clip above -- Jack White under Blackpool lights -- showing a headbanging crowd of Brits what they'd been missing since Bowie made blues worship seem quaint. Swapping forlorn acoustic guitars for electric pyrotechnics, Jack White turns the original on its head -- which explains the blood rush it elicits.

"I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" (Original version, Tommy Hunt)

Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, originally produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, first recorded by Tommy Hunt, popularized by Dusty Springfield, and later by Dionne Warwick, only a genius or a lunatic would have the gall to re-record this song. Jack White is both.

Besides the aforementioned names, Isaac Hayes, Elvis Costello, the Dells and Linda Ronstadt have also attempted to do this song justice. The White Stripes' rendition makes them seem superfluous. Never before had the song seen such cutthroat adrenaline, mani nerve and raw power. This is Bacharach as reconceived by Iggy Pop and produced by Steve Albini. Forget that, that's a dumb description. This is a showcase for the singularity of the White Stripes, written right around the time when they became their own genre.

"Jolene" (Original version, Dolly Parton)

The music sells itself, but if it doesn't, try to imagine your favorite band covering this song. It couldn't. Not this well. Consider that this is the previous reference point. This is possession pure and simple. Jack White sang like he had hell hounds on his trail, baying in endless anguish. He inhabits the song like a funeral mask. This is one of the saddest songs ever recorded. It's the sort of thing you never want to be in the mood to hear, but when you need it, there's nothing stronger.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: The White Stripes. Credit: Stephen Chernin / Associated Press

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