April 3, 2003

Paint it Red and White

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I had a strange dream the night before Elephant, the new White Stripes album appeared in stores. I dreamt of a most confusing day for the indie elitists. There were scores of kids wearing faded t-shirts standing in stores scratching their heads, thumbing the newly pressed Elephant, not daring to make the move towards the cashier. What was their problem? Why did they simultaneously want to dislike the record and still yearn after it?

Those in my dream did not like Jack and Meg’s foiled siblings gimmick; they did not like the strict dress code of red and white; they detested their performance at MTV’s VMAs surrounded by college age kids all dressed in, you guessed it, red and white; and they loathed that “Fell In love With A Girl” carried the brand of being ‘buzzworthy.’ The indies did not want to see Jack and Meg adorning the hallways of hip any longer. But why then were they lining up at the record store door first thing in the morning? In the back of their mind they knew that despite all the cons, the White Stripes have been remarkably consistent in their approach to music.

From their earliest days in the Detroit punk scene, Jack and Meg have worn red and white, claimed to be siblings, and played great bluesy rock and roll. Nothing was changed to gain commercial success. Their breakthrough record White Blood Cells was as raw as their self-titled debut. Some in my crowded dream recognized Jack White’s incredible, yet oft unnoticed, talents as a songwriter, singer and guitar player. Some had seen the band live and knew that Jack is a seriously gifted performer and a very talented musician.

I awoke to realize that the White Stripes are a great band and Elephant is their fourth great record. Although no better than their previous records it is also no worse and that in itself is high praise. As if to toy with those concerned with how commercial success will change the primitive guitar and drums sound of the band, Elephant begins with a bass line driving “Seven Nation Army.” A little research reveals that it is Jack playing through a pedal that lowers the guitar an octave right before he unleashes a wailing guitar assault turned up to 11. Aside from the initial curveball Elephant never departs far from the band’s trademark sound with the exception of Meg handling lead vocals on the seductively sweet “In the Cold, Cold Night” sounding similar to a fleshed out version of the Maureen Tucker’s “After Hours” on the third VU album.

Recorded during two weeks in London, Elephant’s organic sound results from the band’s decision to use only instruments made before 1963 and to avoid all computers in the recording process. In fourteen tracks, the Stripes revisit and reinvent the territories they’ve explored on their first three records. There are moments of chugging guitar assaults reminiscent of their debut, acoustic and electric blues of their stellar DeStijl and the Led Zeppelin-esque riffs and vocal deliveries akin to those on White Blood Cells. In addition tracks like “Hypnotize” and “The Hardest Button to Button” borrow some melodic swagger from T.Rex and Exile-era Stones. Unlike White Blood Cells where several tracks jumped out as immediately infectious singles, Elephant is solid and catchy all the way through without ever pausing to score a hit.

Much has been made of Jack White’s use of the blues. Some claim he exploits them, others believe he is as close to authenticity as one can get nowadays. While I find revivalist musicians that sing about picking cotton without ever leaving New Jersey offensive, I find Jack White’s poor, seventh son, shy kid growing up in the Detroit ghetto blues convincing and heartfelt. At times he oversteps his boundaries but most often as in “I Want to Be the Boy that Warms Your Mother’s Heart” his deliberately childish style of songwriting feel like genuine escapist fantasies. Like the earliest blues, White manages to simultaneously depict hardships and escape from them through the music.

In preparing to write this review I mentally thought of the plethora of two person garage bands being written about nowadays. Most of these saviors of rock aren’t even remotely interesting. The White Stripes are the exception and with Elephant they’ve made another excellent record. It isn’t perfect. For one Jack’s lyrics are far less memorable this time around, but he makes up for it with some of his best playing and singing. Most importantly Elephant is interesting and unlike most garage bands, manages to borrow without being derivative. That alone puts Jack and Meg in a class of their own.

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin