Icon: The White Stripes
Where other artists compensate for a paucity of ideas with elaborate orchestrations, Jack White’s ruthless dedication to minimalism reveals his mastery of both ragged blues guitar and canny pop hooks. Detroit rockers the White Stripes – the red-, white-, and black-clad duo of guitarist Jack and drummer Meg, first thought to be siblings but actually ex-lovers – have gradually evolved from a white-hot garage group to a pop band with a mean edge. Over the course of their career, though, Jack White has mostly resisted the urge to expand — at least when it comes to the Stripes. On 2005′s Get Behind Me Satan, they added piano and marimba, but aside from that, White lets most of his more expansive ideas run loose through his other projects (of which there are many: the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, and his own label, Third Man Records). That this duo can make such thrilling music with so little is just one of their myriad charms.
In Chronological Order
Until Get Behind Me Satan, this 1999 debut was Jack White's favorite Stripes album, probably because he'd so immersed himself in his beloved blues that it felt like the ultimate dream come true — not just making an album in the first place, but making an album of music so relentlessly true to his obsession with the blues that it thumbed its nose at all the timid, copy-cat tendencies of mainstream rock... at the time. Even after White has gone on to expand his musical vision with country, rock and even pop, this basic primer is still thrilling. From the blistering remake of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" and the unflinching rendition of Bob Dylan's mysterious "One More Cup of Coffee" to his own tunes, White fearlessly applied remarkable passion and craft to the topics that would continue to drive him: innocence, loyalty and faith.more »
Contrary to some reports, this is where it all starts — where the White Stripes go from being color-coordinated garage-rock revivalists to hook-heavy songwriters. Not that this record isn't rough around the edges, sporting the sort of saloon-ready songs that go well with a bad attitude and several bottles of Bud. Quite the contrary, as certified jams like "Jumble, Jumble," "Hello Operator" and "Let's Build a Home" peel out of your living... room lot with ballistic drum beats and ravenous, Jack the Ripper riffs. Meanwhile, "I'm Bound To Pack It Up" swaddles its sadness in strings; "Your Southern Can Is Mine" errs on the bonfire side of southern-fried country; and "Apple Blossom" rides its acoustic groove right into rickety percussion patterns and a punchy piano.more »
Considering the entire thing was captured on an 8-track in Jack White's living room, this remains one of his most intimate recordings — a purist making his version of punk rock. It's minimalism that never loses sight of a good ol' fashioned melody, and the first signs that the guy behind the pallid complexion and questionable stage clothing is a straight-up genius.
From the opening guitar squeal of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," it's obvious that the cutesy, let's-play-house vibe of the White Stripes' earlier De Stijl is long gone. (When my seven-year-old kid brother first heard De Stijl, he loved it mainly because he assumed that Jack White was his age.) White Blood Cells was also the White Stripes' first tentative step into the mainstream: "Hotel Yorba," "Dead Leaves" and especially "Fell... in Love With a Girl" relatively big singles for such a small band, just a Detroit boy and a Detroit girl making the garage rock they had heard their whole lives.more »
To the rest of the world, though, this was new. The primal energy, the seeming lack of self-awareness, the illusion of being carefree and having a sense of humor about life (Jack White is, if anything, incredibly self-aware and just as serious) felt genuine in a way that simplicity always does. Sure, dudes who read drummer magazines ragged on Meg — who is certainly not a great drummer, but all the more susceptible to criticism for being a woman playing a man's instrument — and Jack's guitar virtuosity was debated by the kind of people who feel the need to debate such things, but what those people missed were the songs. Jack singing, "Have a doctor come and visit us/ And tell us which one is saved," the unbelievable 50-second jug-band stomp "Little Room" and "The Union Forever," the first time they wrote a song worthy of obvious heroes Led Zeppelin.
White Blood Cells was the moment when the rudimentary garage of their debut and the smart rock of De Stijl coalesced perfectly. Their albums would decline from here, some obvious high-mater marks excepted, and never again would they be so innocent and naïve to write a song as gorgeous as "The Same Boy You've Always Known" (Paul McCartney, I'm sure, is jealous he didn't write this one first). The latter day White Stripes are still a very, very good band, but here, they were a truly great one.
Few bands have made such a compelling case for the superiority of analogue sound over digital than the White Stripes did with this exhilarating fourth album. Recorded in the computer-free zone of Liam Watson's Toe Rag Studio in London with, so it's claimed, no equipment younger than 40 years old, Elephant proudly asserts the primacy of the raw over the cooked, seeking to derive as much intensity with as few instruments (and... as much spirit) as possible, and the minimum of machines interposing between musicians and listeners.more »
Despite the basic line-up — just Jack's guitar and Meg's drums, plus occasional piano, organ or harmonica — the White Stripes explore a surprising range of approaches, from the slow, predatory blues of "Ball and Biscuit" through the garage-punk riffing of "Hypnotize" and two-chord thrash of "Black Math," to the rolling raunch of "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" and the plaintive Neil Young-ish folksy frailty of "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" — and further still, to the ingenuous siren call of Meg White's "Cold, Cold Night," a second cousin of sorts to Mo Tucker's occasional vocal contributions to the Velvet Underground.
The stand-out track, of course, is the anthemic "Seven Nation Army" with which the duo dominated the airwaves throughout 2003, its punchy, striding riff offering an object lesson in the powerful dynamics attainable with just guitar, drums and vocal; though pushing it a close second is "I Want to Be the Boy...," on which Jack's world-weary tones and slide guitar strongly recall the late Irish blues prodigy Rory Gallagher. The album ends with "It's True That We Love One Another," an acoustic duet with Holly Golightly which offers a wry reflection on the perennial "siblings or partners?" rumours surrounding Jack and Meg. Nothing is revealed, of course.
Consensus is that this marimba- and piano-laced album will disappoint those seeking more guitar squallers — for that, proceed alphabetically to Wolfmother. But hardcore music fans will love it, for the way the songs move between genres, for the fun and brevity of each careful gesture. Plus, it's really weird. Masturbating to a picture of Rita Hayworth in "White Moon," failing to sexually satisfy her specter in "Little Ghost," and imagining himself... as her unsatisfiable fan in "Take, Take, Take," Jack White lets his fantasies run amok, while carefully noting again and again that constructing scenarios is just what songwriters do.more »
You have to get to the end of this sinister (as in twisted into knots) compendium a couple of times, with an online lyrics guide that might be wrong (is that "never do it with the fingers" or "never do it with a singer" in the standout "The Denial Twist"?), before you can go back and really hear the thing for the first time. What a pleasure. The writerly, internal, fatigued album that follows a massive outpouring is an old rock tradition: Big Star's Third, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, Dylan's New Morning, etc. For that matter, it's an American tradition. Switch animals, and you could have some fun comparing Elephant to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. That'd make Get Behind Me Satan the counterpart to Pierre, Or the Ambiguities, a novel about a guy who sleeps with his sister. Ring a bell?
We've come to expect the unexpected from the White Stripes so it's enormously encouraging to discover that with album six they're still dealing from a deck loaded with wild cards. There are firecracker songs here, like "Little Cream Soda" and "Effect and Cause," that fit right into the band's eclectic-roots-rock canon, while amply demonstrating Jack's exponentially expanding tunesmithery, perhaps a side of him that has been honed by his time as a... Raconteur. However, the most compelling aspects of this album lie entangled in its wealth of cultural references.more »
The cover shows Jack and sister Meg dressed as a Pearly King and Queen, the aristocracy of London's Cockneys, and yet the style will resonate with Nashville's country elite, who like to besport themselves in that city's equally flamboyant — and intriguingly similar — Nudie suits. Given that Jack has deserted Detroit for Nashville, is he trying to say something about links across the ocean?
Even the album's title must be inducing a frenzy of head-scratching everywhere outside of the north of England. Up there, however, the inhabitants of Lancashire must be smiling smugly, secure in the knowledge that "By ecky thump!" is a local ejaculation of surprise. (Jack's wife, Lancashire-born supermodel Karen Elson apparently says it all the time.) The title track opens with a modally noodling Ondioline (last used to such good effect by Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968) over Meg White's sluggishly insistent bass drum, before Jack erupts into a crazed semi-rap vocal, spitting venomous staccato syllables aimed directly at the greasy heart of Gee Dubya's Amerika. "Why don't you kick yourself out, you're an immigrant too," he demands, while the song alternates with heavily-pointed schizophrenia between heavy blues riffery and folksy improvisations.
Our Jack has tended in the past to shy away from such committed politicking, but this sounds good on him, especially when it comes as the opening salvo of an album where he's parading his own mixed ancestry for all to see. As a Polish-Scottish-descended urban boy from industrial Detroit with a love of rurally rooted blues, he's a gloriously crossbred mongrel, perfectly qualified for his current gig as an all-American icon. Two consecutive tracks here directly address his Scottish ancestry, first of which is "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn." Set to hand-slap-on-thigh percussion, its mandolin rhythm is punctuated with zesty bagpipe skirls courtesy of Jim Drury, pipe major of the Tennessee Scots Pipe Band, building to a ranting climax with Jack delivering the nonsense syllables, "Lie-de-lie-de-lie-oh-oh, well, a-lie-de-lie-de-lie-oh" as if his life depended on them. This leads, without pause, into the fiercely anarchic mayhem of "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)" wherein Meg utters what sound like random phrases — "Where are the angels?" or "I'm not in my room" — against a cacophony of screaming axes and wailing pipes. St. Andrew, of course, is the patron saint of Scotland.
"Rag and Bone" presents another retro-Brit reference, to the long-vanished street hawkers who bought unwanted goods from door to door, then trundled them off on a horse-drawn cart to sell in their junk yards. As a song, though, what is it? Improvised slabs of banter between Meg and Jack are set to a brutal proto-metal riff, topped off with a joyous little tune celebrating the work of the rag and bone man.
Typically, the Whites let the post-release interviews reveal exactly what they're playing at and why. But rest assured that although this is by far their most technically accomplished album to date, it's also their most visceral and invigorating work since the days of White Blood Cells. Easy listening it isn't, but well worth the effort it definitely is.
Jack White's mystique has taken a few knocks in recent years. When you've formed not one but two muso side projects, married a model, recorded a jingle for Coke and appeared in a documentary gassing about fretboards with Jimmy Page and The Edge, it's hard to maintain your status as a refusenik weirdo. But he still sounds most potent when he's on a leash, seething and snarling like a guard dog tethered... to the post of Meg White's primitivist drumming. With no indication as to when he next plans to don the choke chain, this extravagantly packaged live album and film marks the end of at least the first chapter in the White Stripes' history. With typical conceptual neatness, the movie captures a 2007 concert in Nova Scotia on the 10th anniversary of the duo's first ever public performance.more »
This album isn't a document of that concert, but a collection of highlights from their Canadian tour threaded together so effectively that it might as well be. Uniquely for a band of their standing, the White Stripes haven't expanded their sound to fit their audience. Other groups add keyboardists or secondary guitarists to their touring line-ups; the White Stripes hire a bagpiper to open proceedings with a Highlands skirl. All the remaining space is filled with Jack White's berserk charisma. He is a shameless, eye-popping ham, whether devouring the scenery on the Citizen Kane-inspired "The Union Forever," or tearing through "Ball and Biscuit" with such libidinous frenzy that he might as well be playing guitar with his penis.
True to White's famous digitalphobia, the acoustics are thrillingly unpolished, and few live albums are as generous to the audience. We hear the Canadians punctuate a staggering "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" with lusty "hey"s, join in the a cappella breakdown of a half-speed "Fell in Love With a Girl" and take up a verse of "I Just Don't Know What to Do Myself" like a terrace full of soccer fans. Not usually one for "Howyadoin, Nova Scotia?" crowd-pandering, White nonetheless works the throng with cries of "Sing with me!"
The setlist, ranging from 1998's "Let's Shake Hands" to 2007's four-minute nervous breakdown, "Icky Thump," is neatly balanced between the obvious and the obscure. It crashes to a close after an hour with a predictably magnificent "Seven Nation Army," a flurry of techno-like guitar effects and a bagpipe coda. Short of actually giving you tinnitus and spilling beer over you, it could hardly be a more visceral document of a band who sold millions without sacrificing an ounce of their ragged garage-rock vigor. The Raconteurs and the Dead Weather are adequate diversions but really, Jack White can't get back to his day job soon enough.