Listening to live albums is, all too often, an experience akin to watching porn: all very well, but no substitute for actually being there, and too often leaving you with the empty feeling that comes from watching other people having all the fun.
Two iconic US alt-rock bands release live albums this week, and there's inevitably a built-in ceiling on how enjoyable they can be, unless you happened to be at the show, which at least adds memento value to the artefact.
Those incorrigible neophobes The White Stripes take the most traditional approach, with a 16-track lucky dip culled from their 2007 Canadian tour, and a good old vinyl version available (although there is a sister DVD documentary). Pixies, who have turned the live album into a cottage industry of late, have gone into multi-format overload to commemorate – and cash in on – their Doolittle tour of last year. As well as a double CD, limited to 1,000 per show, there's something called a USB wristband and a free iPhone app (which, as someone who's still clinging to a battered Nokia N70, I'm afraid leaves me equally baffled).
Both bands are admittedly atypical in that they're arguably best experienced in the raw. They have similarities, both famous for creating a fusion of garage punk with a more ancient folk form (Delta blues in the Stripes' case, gypsy flamenco in Pixies'), and both therefore lend themselves unusually well to a red-in-tooth-and-claw setting. Under Great White Northern Lights begins, incongruously, with a Scottish bagpipe march, whereupon Jack's Steve Priest shrieking and Meg's hell-for-leather tubthumping proceed via the vengeful metal of "Blue Orchid", the sweet schoolkid romance of "We Are Going to Be Friends" and a couple of gender-bending cover versions (Dusty and Dolly) towards the crowd-pleasing finales "Fell in Love with A Girl" and "Seven Nation Army". Much of the time it sounds like it was recorded inside a rusty bucket, but that's preferable to the post-production fakery you get with many live albums.
Pixies' decision to include the entire duration of each gig, from the interminable violin overture to the encore-begging crowd noise, means it palls at times, but at least this rescues it from being merely a pointless live re-recording of the studio album. The contemporaneous B-sides which top and tail the show are a blast; "Hey" is spine-tingling, and there's a "hits" encore which will vary according to the particular gig you purchase. Both are unusually thrilling examples of the genre, but Under Great White Northern Skies merely whets the appetite for the next White Stripes tour, should one ever materialise, while Doolittle Live makes you wonder when Pixies are gonna tour their real masterpiece Surfer Rosa.