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Jack White’s 15 Best Cover Songs

The ‘Lazaretto’ master’s greatest renditions of other people’s material, from dusty blues classics to modern pop hits

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Jack White has made his name over the past decade-and-a-half by making music that injects the pure, potent sentiments of the past with a fresh manic spark that’s all his own. But as he consciously undertakes that endeavor, a parallel current runs through his B-sides and his live shows, where he unearths a number of tunes from days gone by and pinches and pulls at them until they’re of a piece with the rest of his work.

This fascination with re-imagining songs, both famous and obscure, has continued from the earliest days of the White Stripes, through his various band projects and solo efforts and up to last month’s world record setting pressing of the “Lazaretto” seven-inch. It’s resulted in a number of fascinating covers. Here are some of the best, from Bob Dylan to Gnarls Barkley. By Colin Joyce

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The Raconteurs, “Rich Kid Blues”

Terry Reid will probably be best remembered as the singer that Jimmy Page originally wanted to front the post-Yardbirds band that turned into Led Zeppelin, but at least one Detroit quartet remembers him for his string of Sixties solo efforts. For their 2008 sophomore record, Consolers of the Lonelythe Raconteurs took on Reid's "Rich Kid Blues" and gave it a power-pop makeover. Reid's version is expansive, verging on psychedelic, but White peels down a straightforward blues rock lane, turning up the volume, keeping things simple as ever.

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The Dead Weather, “You Just Can’t Win”

The opening couplet ("One more coffee, one more cigarette / One more morning trying to forget") on Van Morrison's "You Just Can't Win," released in 1965 when he was fronting Them, is the kind of noirish line that you find all over the songbooks of both Jack White and Alison Mosshart, so when those latter two came together for the Dead Weather of course they chose to bring that song along. Released in 2009 as the B-side to Horehound's "Treat Me Like Your Mother," the Dead Weather's version finds White stepping out from behind the drum kit for a cool and collected lead vocal take. In Morrison's original you hear the possibility for the Dead Weather to push the song in a typically explosive direction, but instead they favor a tense and foreboding rendition — simmering where Morrison bubbled and raged. 

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The White Stripes, “Ashtray Heart”

Listening to White's bluesy yawp, there's no obvious indication of the influence of Captain Beefheart's idiosyncratic avant-rock. The White Stripes nevertheless showed their appreciation for the man's acid-damaged tunes on a seven-inch in 2000 released as part of the Sub Pop singles club. Though Beefheart's "Party of Special Things to Do" sits on the A-side, "Ashtray Heart," which finds White singing from behind a veil of warped distortion, is the standout. Everything's all crushed out and ugly as White delivers a deranged vocal take in a performance that stands with the best of the White Stripes catalog.

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The Raconteurs, “Crazy”

White doesn’t make many overtures to pop, but he nodded to the connection between that world and his own warped melodic sensibilities with the Raconteurs’ 2006 live take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Before he launched his solo career, the Raconteurs were where White went to display some of his more traditionally catchy sensibilities, so in that sense this cover choice isn’t all that surprising, but the direction in which White chooses to drag “Crazy” still seems invigoratingly unorthodox. After launching into the familiar strains of the intro, White’s creaky vocals creep in and upend Cee-Lo’s glassy original. Danger Mouse’s smooth sampling gives way to yelping and slivers of lead guitar. Rather than play it straight, White pulls at the song’s seams, and this is the sound of that tension.

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Jack White, “Love Is Blindness”

Director Baz Luhrmann's 2013 take on The Great Gatsby glitzed up F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel with gaudy set and costume design (and some dubstep to boot). White takes the opposite approach on his version of U2's "Love Is Blindness" (included on the soundtrack to Luhrmann's film) — stripping away the original's spaced-out instrumentation in favor of scratchy-voiced emotion and a Whammy-coated guitar solo. Even when the circumstances seemingly call for ostentatiousness, White peels the layers back, digging for the heart of the material with which he's working. 

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The Dead Weather, “Forever My Queen”

The Dead Weather aren't a metal band in any traditional sense of the genre, but between Alison Mosshart's raspy moaning and White's sinewy work behind the drum kit, it's easy to see how they might draw from the crepuscular atmosphere of the Virginian proto-doom quartet Pentagram. White and company took to covering "Forever My Queen" at shows on their tour in support of Horehound, and it proved both a sonic and thematic fit in the band's set. White nails the pulse of the original's minimal, yet driving drum beat, and Mosshart's dusky vocal gleefully subverts the lyric's macho metal dude come-ons.

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The White Stripes, “Signed D.C.”

Arthur Lee's sixties cult favorites Love often worked with a kaleidoscopic sonic palette that's a psychedelic world away from the White Stripes bare bones aesthetic, but White rightly tapped "Signed D.C." as a spiritual ancestor to the brittle, lonesome ballads that mark the quieter sides of the White Stripes records. Unearthed from a store of unreleased material in 2011 as part of the Third Man Vault record club, White's take transposes the original's acoustic strumming to electric guitar, but more or less preserves the same forlorn spirit. White's vocal performance here is the highlight. Though sanded down by some charmingly lo-fi production, White's white-knuckled emoting is a hair-raiser in a far less delicate fashion than Lee's more subdued performance. 

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The White Stripes, “Walking With a Ghost”

Tegan and Sara's lilting "Walking With A Ghost" first appeared in relatively tidy form on their 2004 album So Jealous, then the White Stripes promptly snapped it up for an EP of their own. White rightly recognized the paranoid lyrical content of the original as of a piece with his own work and he turned the Canadian duo's neat little pop gem into something much more alien. Funneling it through the White Stripes' meat grinder, "Walking With A Ghost" becomes a blocky, minimalist banger — all elbows and knees and cymbal crashes.

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The White Stripes, “Death Letter”

Jack White's affinity for the work of classic bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and Eddie "Son" House is fairly evident if you listen to the early White Stripes material, but he's also made that influence explicit several times throughout his career. He's offered rousing covers of Johnson ("Stop Breaking Down" on The White Stripes) and McTell ("Lord Send Me An Angel" as a seven-inch in 2000, and "Your Southern Can Is Mine" on De Stijl), but his rendition of House's "Death Letter" on De Stijl stands out. House's version of the song was plaintive and pained, but White plays with the wrath of God on his. White splatters his tormented vocal with grimy slide guitar work and manages to repackage House's mournful tune as something more thunderous, but no less emotionally impactful.

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The Dead Weather, “New Pony”

Jack White struck up a friendship with Bob Dylan after inviting the latter to sing the White Stripes' "Ball and Biscuit," which Dylan and his band had been covering at soundchecks, at a 2004 show in Detroit. Needless to say, the admiration that Dylan expressed was mutual. White's recorded fascination with Bob Dylan runs as far back as his 1999 cover of Desire's "One More Cup of Coffee," but the Dead Weather's "New Pony" remains his best take on the scraggly-voiced poet's oeuvre. Dylan's magnetism is, of course, unique, but the gravitas that Alison Mosshart's vocals lend to "New Pony" is evident from her wailing intro. White's squelched backing vocals and muscular percussion also give the Street Legal song jittery new life.

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The White Stripes, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”

The Burt Bacharach-composed (with lyrics by Hal David) “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” has been recorded by the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, who each laid down versions that were probably more in line with what Bacharach had in mind than with the White Stripes’ ripping 2003 recording. Nestled on the same side of Elephant as “Seven Nation Army,” White’s version of the pop classic seems to represent both an embrace and intentional distance from groovy sixties culture. Here are Bacharach’s infectious melodies, but also a handful of guitar riffs and solos that thrillingly wrestle with the original’s winsome hooks. 

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The White Stripes, “Jolene”

Dolly Parton‘s version of her 1973 single “Jolene” is pretty untouchable, but the White Stripes’ version (first appearing as a B-side on their “Hello Operator” seven-inch, then as a staple of their live shows) does its best to stretch and strain to reach it. White sticks losely to the original’s minimal guitar-and-vocals combo, but he does offer a whole lot of riveting emoting. Where Parton sounded melancholic and regretful, White screeches and yowls about the pain of loss. A lesser band would collapse under the weight of a classic, but White’s past-exorcising vocal is one of his best.

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The Dead Weather, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

Other than being a couple of oddballs who have carved out a fruitful existence at the fringes of pop, there's little obvious similarity between Jack White and Gary Numan, but nevertheless the Dead Weather pounded out a simmering rendition of the latter's synth-pop classic in 2009. The glitzy keyboard flourishes on Numan's original are replaced by mucky, plucky organ parts and twitchy guitar lines. It's not quite as overtly pummeling as the rest of the band's repertoire, but the reimagining is grounded and earthy where Numan's version was icy and robotic.

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The White Stripes, “Conquest”

To the uninformed, White's version of "Conquest" bears all the hallmarks of a proper White Stripes track, right down to Meg's minimal floor tom rumble, but the song's roots go back more than 50 years. Composed by Corky Robbins and made popular by Patti Page in 1952, "Conquest" is a Spanish-tinged lounge pop tune that the duo amped up on their 2007 album Icky Thump. This tale of the romantically hunting and hunted feels far more urgent in White's hands, and that's no doubt due to the stormy, unhinged guitar leads that he drops all over the track's three-minute runtime.

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