The White Stripes
I acquiesced to Jack White's sovereignty over the Rock Musics upon hearing Get Behind Me Satan. I'd always thought The Stripes pretty catchy, something I liked hearing in the car or at a party, much like Cake and nearly all hip-hop, but nothing with which I wanted to share close quarters, until Get Behind Me Satan. I put them up there with The Black Keys as the only ones that get it anymore. Overplayed as it is, "The Denial Twist" still gets me, like Robert Plant going through some sort of spiritual trial, having to start over and set things right this time before he can enter the gates of Heaven. The bottom line is, Jack White knows how to sell it. So with baited breath and my allowance money in my clenched fist, I waited for Icky Thump, hoping that the ridiculousness of that statement would be whitewashed by rock genius.
Well, there is paint all over the place, but I can still see the primer bleeding through. The title track opens with a primordial grind and Jack's double tracked histrionics sound on point. The opening tracks on White Stripes albums are usually the finest things around, and this is good, but I can't help but feel that Jack might have been indulging a Styx affectation a little too heavily when the serpentine keyboard-y thing hits toward the end. I've come to accept that musicians I really like tend to love music I tend to hate, and this push-me-pull-you creates genius in the space between me and them, but when the cloud gets out of balance, the thunder falls a little flat to this storm tracker.
Take "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)." It's a well-wrought Southern Bar Rock anthem, and when those are done right, they are unstoppable. The band get some rolling thunder going, but the lyrics don't have his usually whip-smart whittling. "300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues" however, starts to pull this thing back onto the rails. The hazy stoner groove makes me think of Blind Melon, in a good way, mind you, and Jack plays the rock-n-roll rainmaker with a master's touch.
"Conquest" is perversely awesome - faux Mexican western ballad, complete with mariachi horns, run through the grimiest amp in his garage. It has some of that John Spencer Blues Explosion Photoshop blues to it, sounding a little too pieced together, but it's a load of fun nonetheless. "Bone Broke" finally brings me my order, sweaty teenage breakdown still bloody in the middle with a seared crust on the outside. It leads me to think I'm falling into a branding trap with the White Stripes, that I want a certain thing from this service provider and am tempted to call the manager when I don't get it, and I don't like that notion. It's just that they do this one thing so well....
"Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn" is yet another diversion, this time into gypsy, almost free-folk territory, but its done with the directness with which their garage masterpieces are crafted. Hell, I think there might be bagpipes in here, and it still sounds both frayed and precisely targeted. The pipes and handclaps bleed over into the omni-Celtic psyche breakdown "St. Andrew (The Battle Is in The Air)" with some success, but thankfully trot over the hills making way for some ball peen hammer rock on "Ice Cream Soda" and then some post-Robert-Plant-being-post-John-Lee-Hooker boogie on "Rag and Bone." It's delicious. If anything, Jack White still knows how to be a rock god.
"I'm Turning into You" like much of the record is submerged in excess rather than wallowing in it. "A Martyr for My Love for You" works a little better, the slightly priggish keys and guitar crunch getting some post-everything 21st century Jethro Tull action moving. "Catch Hell Blues" is like stump-grinder blues numbers on the first couple Led Zeppelin records, it was painfully obvious what the group was going for, but they got close enough to it for it to count in their favor.
The final "Effect and Cause" makes this thing all make sense. It reminds me of "Factory Girl" and "Country Honk" lying bare and chuckling among the myriads of style-hodgepodges that complete the Rolling Stones' best records. Maybe Icky Thump is the White Stripes' Let It Bleed, a record that Chuck Klosterman said he'd rather listen to than the actual blues. I'm tempted to concur, even though both records put a lot of product on the shelf, and make no mystery of their manufacture, but they sell it all, and you and I buy it wholesale.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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