The White Stripes review
They worship simplicity. Even their names are monosyllabic - Meg and Jack White of The White Stripes - and repetitive. They are cultural minimalists, fond of setting limits. If they were poets, they'd be New Formalists, though they'd likely resent the company. They avoid instruments other than drums and guitar.
Computers cannot touch them. They mourn the death of the gentleman. I mourn the death of rock-and-roll. Bring on The White Stripes. To call The White Stripes a band is to be missing something -- not only because the word means more than two, but also because there is something isolationist about them. The White Stripes seem more like a club than a band -- like a clique in high school, defining themselves by what they are not, by what they will not do. They are, however, made up of several parts: roughly, one part Meg White, the drummer, and four parts Jack White -- everything else.
The imbalance in the relationship is critical. Meg has been mostly maligned or ignored in the press. Jack jumps to her defense. She's the heart of the band, he claims. What this means, I think, is that she's spiritually significant. Musically, however, she's replaceable. When one speaks of The White Stripes then, it is a matter of convention; what is meant by this is Jack.
In 2001, I saw them play at Pier 54 on Fourteenth street. I knew little about them. Descriptions of their sound kept me from listening to their records. "Stripped down" is the prevailing phrase. I've heard many bands described this way -- musically it's supposed to conjure fundamentalism; psychologically, honesty -- from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (who use a theremin in their act, as if this were part of the rudiments of rock), to any of a number of guys and gals with acoustic guitars and tuneful voices you hear so much of these days.
"Garage" was another descriptive term. Oh God. Let me explain. Probably if I heard another early Kinks imitation, I'd start to hate the early Kinks -- the equivalent of religious conversion for me.
My friend called me late the day of the show to see if I wanted to go. I was at my job at a record store. I said okay; I also would have said okay to staring together at a wall. I had a sense, though, that live was the way to hear this band. And "stripped down" and "garage" sounded more promising than "painstakingly-produced" or "meticulously-executed," in any case. Also, I should mention, the show was free -- a serious inducement.
We went that night to the pier. It was summer. There was a crowd, but it wasn't debilitating. The show was sponsored by Snapple and there was iced tea all around -- for a fee. It didn't feel cool or adult. It didn't feel like New York.
We saw a five-piece "garage" act open up for The White Stripes, a band I've seen a number of times. I can't remember their name. The White Stripes came out and shriveled them; I wondered if the opening band had been playing into a tin can.
The White Stripes sound was monstrous, complete. It saturated the open air. I looked around; some people were smiling, some were moving -- rarities at rock shows these days. Jack was possessed by something ineffable, though I will try to eff it later. It felt like something was happening. People -- young people -- looked around at one another, to see if anyone else knew.
Walking back from the show I felt lucky.
My familiarity with The White Stripes music since this show makes me think I can refer to them from here on as The Stripes, though it may be a presumption. In any case, The Stripes emerged from Detroit's dirt-rock tradition. The music there has ever been gritty and locomotive. It has something to do with industry and the pressure from the surrounding states; the results have always sounded cracked and eruptive -- think of The MC5, or, more recently, The Gories. What The White Stripes do could hardly be considered new. Even their bass-less two-piece approach isn't an innovation; I am reminded of The Cheater Slicks, Flat Duo Jets, Mr. Airplane Man. That they should end up heading a garage-rock revival, calling attention to a sustained and existing scene, is as much timing as
talent. All that has happened is that we've become aware.
The first three Stripes records were issued on a small Long Beach, California label, Sympathy for the Record Industry. Listening to their records in tandem, however, is not advised. One hardly gets the feeling of evolution, though there is a sense of rubbing a stone smooth. If you like any of their records, you'll like the others, though there's a code to claims of preference: fans of the self-titled first record tend to be garage punk enthusiasts who like any band's first record best; fans of De Stijl, their second record, generally went to art school; and fans of White Blood Cells, their third, tend to be unpretentious types, unafraid to admit to being a little behind the curve.
Elephant, their latest record, was issued by a major label,V2 -- the V being Virgin. When a band switches from indie to major label, a period of great concern and watching generally follows. Often this is the time that the major label abandons the newly-signed band in favor of supporting its more established acts. Not so The Stripes, who seem to have a promotional battalion behind them. They have been poised for months on the precipice of rock-and-roll domination. If you haven't read about them by now, it is unlikely you'll be reading these words.
All this could have put a lot of pressure on their latest record, and maybe that's why it's called Elephant, The Stripes perhaps relating to that age-old beast of burden. One has only to look so far as their name to know that they have a stake in suffering. But your guess is as good as mine. Don't expect any help from the cover, unless you're a crack symbolist.
A lot has been made of The White Stripes influences: the blues. They choose their themes from that deep pit -- love, money, pain, death, jail. But then they cross them with a bygone adolescence -- not their own, but a drugstore, soda fountain, bowling alley era: baby blues. It's lowdown but not too far down, though it isn't chaste either; it's posturing; it's fun. And with Jack White you're in the good hands of a man completely in control of his own mojo -- and that's a satisfying feeling.
The White Stripes are a natural reaction to music's neutered state, an ambivalence we've been drowning in since the death of, well, Nirvana. The reason they sound so good is we've been dying for them. But Elephant is their fourth record, which means in band years middle age; I'm being kind. I mention it because they've covered the same terrain now for the duration of their existence, a landscape that has served them well, and I can't help but feel a sympathetic anxiety for them.
Consistency is one of The White Stripes virtues. Even before I'd heard the new record, I was relieved; I knew it would be good. I was not troubled by the worries that can overtake me anticipating the efforts of other bands: the concept album, the cross-over album, the roots album, the electronic album, the acoustic album, the solo project. Over the course of The White Stripes career there has been little variation. Basically there are three songs -- the agitator, the serenade, and the swampy stalking blues, which isn't so bad when you think of it; many bands have only two. I love all three of these songs, but the records also contain their lesser versions. Jack White loves to reproduce -- whether it be himself or others.
On Elephant the reproduction can be heard most noticeably on the third track, There's No Home For You Here -- a version of what I by now think of as an old White Stripes standard, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, though this song only goes back to their last record. Other examples? The Air Near My Fingers is a note shy of a lawsuit; at the break in the song, there's no need for them to sing Wild Thing, I think I love you, because you do. Shall I go on?
Though not all things remain the same. For instance: Jack seems to have dropped out of Robert Plant's vocal studio, and into Marc Bolan's (hear, for example, Jack's channeling of Bolan's signature military goat on Black Math). Also new -- experiments in modulation! Don't get excited, they haven't changed key, but sometimes they sing soft. And Meg gets to test her vocal cords, though she sings just like you thought she would: bored and out-of-tune.
But if her singing can be dismissed, her drumming deserves discussion. In case you haven't heard, she can't play. It's not even a judgment, it's more like a rumor -- passed along without reflection. It's based on a false model -- Neil Peart.
Drumming is one of those skills for which the phrase If you've got it, flaunt it, does not apply. Meg provides exactly what is called for -- the beat. Her diffidence in interviews, photographs, and videos is surely annoying, but when it comes to drumming, the results are an appropriate modesty, a crude ensemble playing.
I suspect the criticism of Meg's drumming disguises two issues -- the real ones -- sexism, of course, and the wish for her to not concede and defer as she
does. But let's not confuse things. Meg keeps the lines clear, she makes Jack possible.
But perhaps I should get to the new record. If the first track, Seven Nation Army, doesn't solve all your problems, then, my friend, you've got trouble. I hear bass, although I understand it's a breach of their by-laws, as well as over-dubbed guitar parts -- so fat sounding I didn't need to eat for days. And Meg's cro-magnon thumping has never sounded more perfect -- like Indians on the war path.
The first three songs, in fact, are so good and so intelligently sequenced that it almost seems moot to examine the rest of the record. Track four, however, is a sour-sounding version of Burt Bachrach's I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, once sung marvelously well by Dusty Springfield. And by track five, I feel they're floundering. The song itself, In the Cold, Cold, Night (punctuation theirs) is a creepy voyeuristic-sounding piece which is followed by a creepy Godspell-sounding piece, I Want To Be The Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart. They get back on track with You've Got Her In Your Pocket, a creepy folk tune, and Ball and Biscuit, a demented rough-up. They fall off again, jump back on; they should have cut about three songs -- The Hardest Button to Button (lyrically interesting, sonically dull), Little Acorns (though I appreciate the sound advice of the spoken word intro, the song itself is redundant), and The Air Near My Fingers (see above). Then they'd've had to re-sequence. Write me for my play list.
There has always been fatback on The White Stripes' records. It is as though they are circling their kill, unaware when they've actually killed it. This is, of course, where a set of outside ears could come in handy -- for instance, on Elephant, Liam Watson, the engineer. I can only guess from the detritus sprinkled throughout the record, and the tin-eared sequencing of the mid-section, that he was otherwise occupied at recording time. One of the strengths, after all, of the sixties garage rock records The Stripes claim to admire is their brevity.
But the new, trimmer Elephant is anything but starved. I haven't heard singing like the singing on Black Math in a very long time, not since, well, their last record, but before that not since The Pixies. Jack White's real soul-mate, truth be known, actually goes back only so far as to the early nineties -- nineteen nineties -- Black Francis. And his rule-breaking guitar-soloing on this song and others left me feeling pointlessly cheated: imagine if he'd been allowed to do that on the other records. The real problem is he's afraid of his talent.
There's No Home For You Here has the kind of majesty of The Small Faces Tin Soldier, as well as its electric piano, and the Seeds-inspired arpeggios are a welcome sonic homage; Ball And Biscuit, at seven minutes fifteen, keeps coiling out and winding back; it's through when they're through with you. It's one of the best tracks on the record and makes me just wanna leave home; Hypnotize is a hair-puller; and when Jack shouts "Acetaminophen!" on Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine, it sounds so cool, kids will be grinding up the pills and snorting them; the last track, Well It's True That We Love One Another, a trio, is an inspired idea.
The White Stripes songs are marked by a quick smolder, a spirit that makes a short bright appearance and goes away. There's an under-thought quality to the songs. As my old record-store boss would love to point out, It's not rocket science, though you'd never know it, from the joyless math-rock that flattens the air-waves today. But The White Stripes know it.
Which is another part of their brilliance -- context. They motored in on the fumes of car-commercial music, like a deflection of ambience. It almost makes them seem hyper-real -- which is a dilemma -- because it makes you aware of how dependent their songs are on their playing them.
But this isn't why The White Stripes are through. They're through because of their stupid, self-defeating rules about rules. Though I doubt they'll suffer -- it's obviously a death-wish. It's not the artificiality of it that irks me, it's the romance.
There's something dishonest about The White Stripes, something high. I've read that Jack White is not ironic. Whatever. But let's not assume that he's without device. Sure, I think he's serious about what he does, and far be it from me to lay claims to his tastes, his influences, or his real true inner being. They turned down a Gap ad -- an act that in today's culture is the mark of spiritual superiority, though it's semantics to me. The Stripes are talked about like they're the Holden Caulfield's of rock because they reject the modern world -- well, parts of it anyway. Their exclusions might carry more weight if they weren't so easy and negative. I'd be more likely to be impressed if instead of the liner notes reading No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record, they read, No phones were used in the booking of any of our shows. Come off it.
I say this partly because I like them so much and it's hard to watch something you love kill itself. Imagine if David Bowie had had the same approach: he'd still be sleeping with Anthony Newley, I expect.
The other night I saw The Stripes again. They played at Hammerstein, near Penn station. I got there late and only heard the last three songs. There was a tired, distracted vibe. It felt like the end of a big wedding. From where I stood, The Stripes looked like bright spots of blood in headlights. The spots made no necessary correlation to the booming, dispersed sound that wafted over the crowd. Meg had propped her kit at the side of the stage. Jack moved close to her, leaving half the space dormant. People milled about and strained to see anything; they sat down. Jack's guitar spasmed invention after invention, which seemed to have no effect on the crowd. The stage swallowed him up. He seemed awkward and straining. It wasn't their fault; The Stripes and the Hammerstein ballroom are an uncomfortable pairing.
Loretta Lynn came out for The Stripes encore and sang a duet with Jack. She seemed to know how to inhabit the space. She sounded great. I wished I had seen her set.
I watched the crowd file out -- aging hipsters with serious faces, probably trying to figure out the cultural significance. Waiting for the train I saw some kids. I asked them what they thought of the show. They said they liked it. The reservation in their voices was apparent. They had paid 28.50, after all -- 35 with charges.
On the train home we got stopped between stations. The car was stuffed with passengers. A man with no eyebrows kept brushing past me and moaning in my ear. The conductor repeated the same regret and promise of imminent departure. At first his announcement sounded hopeful, but as time passed, it took on a doomed inflection. We waited like penitents for the train to move forward. I wondered what The White Stripes were waiting for.