The White Stripes

The White Stripes
De Stijl
White Blood Cells
Get Behind Me Satan
Icky Thump

The White Stripes (Sympathy For The Record Industry ‘99) Rating: B+
Two years before achieving mainstream adulation, The White Stripes delivered this predictably solid first set. At 17 songs there are a few too many, especially given that 3 1/2 of them (part of “Cannon” integrates the traditional “John The Revelator”) are covers, but all the elements of “the classic White Stripes sound” are already in place, even if Jack White’s songwriting sometimes lacks distinctiveness compared to what would come later. The band’s most abrasive, unpolished record (not necessarily a bad thing up to a point), The White Stripes primarily includes raw, primitive blues-based stompers (their specialty), but it also adds the occasional slow ballad, loose acoustic ditty, or lead-paced dirge. White’s wild high-pitched vocals are an acquired taste, and Meg White’s Bam Bam drum bashing isn't especially imaginative, but the duo clicks on songs such as "Jimmy The Exploder,” “Stop Breaking Down” (a Robert Johnson cover), “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” “Cannon” (whose best attribute, its dirty riff, is all White’s), “Broken Bricks,” "Screwdriver," and “I Fought Piranhas,” and I also dig the dark, dreary Dylan cover, “One More Cup of Coffee.” Basically, if you like their more accessible but hardly easy listening later albums I don’t see why you wouldn’t like this one as well, as it's quite consistent, though perhaps it's too consistent in its uniformity and it starts an unwelcome trend of albums tailing off quality-wise on side two. Still, though it lacks the obvious high points and further attempts at diversity that would come later, The White Stripes’ simple but effective sound was already fully-formed right here.

De Stijl (Sympathy For The Record Industry ‘00) Rating: A-
A more mature, fully-developed follow up featuring much improved songwriting, De Stijl has a cleaner, more easily digestible overall sound (it’s still dirty enough, though) and plenty of potential highlights. The poppy “You’re Pretty Good Looking” is hooky enough that it easily could’ve been a hit, but the grimy guitars of the debut return on “Hello Operator,” one of several songs here that reveal White to be a real slide guitar hotshot (John Szymanski helps out on harmonica as well). “Apple Blossom” is much mellower but is also memorable, especially in the way that it at times ambles along like a sea shanty, and “I’m Bound To Pack It Up,” with its excellent acoustic melody and almost-smooth vocal, is arguably the band’s best song to date. The middle of the album continues with the slower, mellower material, with “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” being especially adept at juxtaposing loud and soft elements, as the album adds different shades and textures within a less one-dimensional overall sound. Well, they’re still pretty limited from a stylistic standpoint, and White’s songwriting can still be pretty generic, but the band is definitely moving forward in the right direction on what by and large is a very entertaining album. When White wearily intones “I’m all alone” on “A Boy’s Best Friend” he sounds very convincing, and though the album has a few nondescript tunes, particularly on it’s lesser second half, he adds some deft touches this time, such as the exciting wailing guitar solos on “Jumble, Jumble” and the surprising appearance of a sitar (I think) on “Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me?” Finally, “Your Southern Can Is Mine,” a Blind Willie McTell cover, is completely transformed into a lighthearted Southern hoedown, as the fun quotient has definitely increased from the debut to De Stijl, though few people noticed this at the time.

White Blood Cells (V2 ‘01) Rating: A
It's amazing what some major label marketing muscle and a hot single can do for you. You can't open a music magazine these days (October 2002) without seeing an article about The White Stripes. After all, "Rock Is Back!," or so Rolling Stone tells us. Then again, I don't recall rock ever leaving, and these are the same yahoos who predicted rock's death to "electronica" a few years ago. But back to The White Stripes, who (to expand somewhat upon previous introductions) consist of Jack White (guitars, vocals, piano, organ) and Meg White (drums). Supposedly there's some confusion about whether these two are brother/sister or former husband/wife, but frankly I don't care if they're brother/sister and husband/wife. However, I do care about the 16 songs on White Blood Cells, most of which are pretty darn good and a few of which are flat-out phenomenal, making this a rare case where the band actually lives up to the hype.. Unsurprisingly, considering that the band consists of only two people, The White Stripes' sound continues to be stripped down and to the point, with Jack's big fuzzy garage riffs and wildly emotive yowl to the fore. Among the highlights are "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground," an exciting, hard rocking bluesy stomper in the band's best style (great riffs and a terrific song title, too), "Hotel Yorba," a ridiculously catchy and rocking countrified ditty that I can’t not sing along to, "I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman," which has an epic quality and nice guitar/piano interplay, "Fell In Love With A Girl," the aforementioned hot single and a phenomenal high energy rocker, "The Union Forever," a memorably moody yet rocking dirge, "The Same Boy You've Always Known," a mellower semi-ballad with one of White's most affecting vocals, "We're Going To Be Friends," a pretty acoustic ballad whose naive charm deeply moves me, “Offend In Every Way,” which rocks and also has interesting, easily relatable lyrics, "I Think I Smell A Rat," an inventive merger of Spanish guitar, metallic riffs, and Jack's offbeat vocals, and "This Protector," a nicely laid-back piano/vocal showcase. Elsewhere, perhaps some riffs sound overly familiar and at least a couple of songs (“Expecting” and "Aluminum," for example) could've been left on the cutting room floor. However, despite having a much weaker second half as per usual, White Blood Cells, the band's commercial breakthrough, has quite a few exceptional songs and was an impressively gritty display of old time, nuthin' fancy rock n' roll virtues.

Elephant (V2 ‘03) Rating: A
If anything this album was even more hyped than the last one, with a slew of cover stories, "best band in the world" articles, and rave reviews across the board from critics. Of course, the anti-hype "they suck" brigade was soon out in full force, making fun of the duo's silly white and red uniforms, Meg's simplistic drumming style (maybe so but it fits), Jack's "star" status and accompanying movie star girlfriend (Renee Zellweger), and even his infamous temper (the most famous instance of it flaring being when he literally pummeled the lead singer of the Von Blondies). Anyway, as is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between the two extreme viewpoints. No, Jack White is NOT the 17th greatest guitarist of all time, as Rolling Stone claimed in a recent "100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time" special issue, but neither do they "suck". In fact, they're a really good band who make subtle improvements with each album, even going so far as to approximate a bass guitar on several of these songs, most notably on "Seven Nation Army," the album's awesome first single that's all about its tightly coiled tension. Jack's use of old, "authentic" instruments to dirty up the sound is also apparent on stomping garage rockers such as "Black Math," "Little Acorns," “The Hardest Button To Button,” "Hypnotize" (an inferior but still solid rewrite of "Fell In Love With A Girl"), and “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine,” all of which keep the distorted fuzz flying, while "Ball and Biscuit" is another obvious standout, being a 7+ minute blues epic with several wailing guitar solos. Using keyboards to expand upon what has always been a fairly one-dimensional sound, the band also delivers the epic psychedelic pop of "There's No Home For You Here" and "The Air Near My Fingers," while several ballads in a row appear in the album's mid-section, as you could make a case that Elephant could be sequenced better. Still, most of these songs, like most of the other songs, are really good, including an ultra-cool cover of Bacharach/David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (love it when those riffs come in there at the end), a Meg turn at the mike where she successfully mimes Moe Tucker ("In The Cold, Cold Night"), a tender piano ballad that sounds like it's straight from the '70s ("I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart"), and a solo acoustic performance on which White's vulnerable vocals remind me of Alex Chilton ("You've Got Her In Your Pocket"). On the whole, I appreciate this album's fuller sound and the band's successful attempts at diversity (like the cute acoustic finale, “Well It’s True That We Love One Another,” on which Meg, Jack, and guest Holly Golightly trade vocals), even if sweat soaked, high energy rockers are still what this duo does best. "Seven Nation Army" is the album's obvious standout track, but many of the other songs are great as well, and the album maintains its momentum after an outstanding start. All in all, Elephant sees The White Stripes at the peak of their primitive powers, and it remains a benchmark recording of its type that will be tough for the band to top.

Get Behind Me Satan (V2 ‘05) Rating: B+
Jack White's performances on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and his collaboration with country songstress Loretta Lynn on her Van Lear Rose album (which he produced) obviously influenced The White Stripes' fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan, which is by far the band's most diverse and least "garage" offering to date. In fact, the propulsive, falsetto-enhanced first single "Blue Orchid" is one of only three songs that features an electric guitar, the others being "Instinct Blues," which could be a lot hookier, and "Red Rain," a much better effort with periodic bursts of pure power. Instead, piano, acoustic guitar, and marimba are the album's primary instruments, and most of these strange songs aren't what you'd expect, such as "The Nurse," an odd slice of marimba-led psychedelia that to my ears nods to Tommy James and the Shondells, and "My Doorbell," a catchy if overly repetitive piano ditty. "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" features some of the album's sturdiest melodies and lyrics, and "Little Ghost" is a twangy banjo-led sing along that would be the perfect theme song if there's ever a sequel to Deliverance. Elsewhere, "Passive Manipulation" is 35 seconds of piano pop with Meg again in Moe Tucker mode a la their previous "In The Cold, Cold Night," while "Take, Take, Take" is an amusing, intermittently rocking, and likely at least partially autobiographical tale about a pushy fan and Rita Hayworth, who also appears in the also-good ballad "White Moon." Finally, "As Ugly As I Seem" and "I'm Lonely (But I 'Aint That Lonely Yet)" are other fine ballads with even better song titles on an album that sees The White Stripes largely ditching their trademark bluesy garage sound on a wide ranging group of songs, most of which have a loose, off the cuff feel. Supposedly the album was written quickly and recorded in two weeks, and perhaps a few merely decent songs could've been further fleshed out. Still, I applaud the album's concise running time and the band's attempts at branching out, even if I would've applauded more attempts at rocking out as well. Fact is, despite offering consistently impressive proof that The White Stripes are far from a one trick pony, the album nevertheless lacks the excitement of the band's harder hitting recent work. Still, whereas bands like The Strokes and Interpol seem destined to deliver good but not-quite-as-good rehashes of stellar debuts, The White Stripes show that they can continue to surprise, which bodes well for a bright future of ongoing vitality and relevance.

Icky Thump (Warner Bros' ‘07) Rating: A-
After his successful side dalliance with The Raconteurs, White Stripes fans feared that Jack and Meg's band might be no more. Fear not, loyal faithful, for The White Stripes are back a mere year later (and a mere two years after Get Behind Me Satan, right on schedule) with Icky Thump, the band's loudest and most aggressive outing in some time, maybe ever. This album rocks, plain and simple; there's little piano, acoustic guitar, or marimba this time, as White is in full on guitar hero mode. And though this isn't the band's best batch of songs (that remains Elephant), it is a good set of songs that's really grown on me. What I like most about this album is its overall vibe, as the band's badass swagger is back big time. The album is far from perfect, as White's carnival barker raps can be a bit annoying at times, some of his plentiful guitar solos don't really go anywhere or are overly grating, and yet again the album loses some steam towards the end. Some old time fans might also miss the band's occasional poppier and country-ish asides, as Icky Thump sticks primarily to harsh, bluesy hard rockers. That said, the album is accessible, it just takes awhile for the songs to sink in. The terrific title track, the album's first single, is certainly a winner, with the band's trademark dirty riffs and bluesy stomp, but its creative use of clavioline and political lyrics about immigration also make it distinctive. "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" is a loud epic a la Elephant, with a big hooky chorus and Hammond organ fleshing out the sound. Damn I love me some Hammond organ, which also appears on "I'm Slowly Turning Into You," which contains another clever lyric. But the album's best lyric, and one of its best songs, is "Rag and Bone," on which Meg and Jack rap back and forth about junk collectors, all while metaphorically describing their own musical strategy. Clever stuff, and the chorus is quite catchy as well. Elsewhere, "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" is a slow blues interrupted by bouts of wailing guitar, and "Conquest" is a loud flamenco-flavored cover of an old Patti Page song that stomps along and is highlighted by its guitar vs. horn duels. Granted, there's not much to distinguish some of the other songs, but most rock righteously nevertheless (particularly "Little Cream Soda"), and "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" is certainly different, being a catchy and quite singable Scottish jig on which the band breaks out the bagpipes; alas, "St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)" is a trippier, jam-based continuation that's less successful (but at least it's short at 1:49). On the whole, Icky Thump is another strong offering by The White Stripes (I'm also partial to "Martyr For My Love" and "Catch Hell Blues"), as by and large the band gets back to what they do best after the satisfyingly atypical detour that was Get Behind Me Satan. It'll be interesting to see where the talented Mr. White will go from here, whether he'll return to The Raconteurs or be content continuing with the stylistically limited duo format that he’s used with Meg in The White Stripes, which he's somehow been able to stretch just enough to keep things sounding fresh and exciting. Update: After a solidly enjoyable live CD/DVD, Under Great White Northern Lights (2010), The White Stripes disbanded in 2011. Jack has since been busy with his solo career (as of this writing he's released two well-received solo albums), while not a peep has been heard from Meg.

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