Ever since kids with guitars first discovered that the family garage had use beyond holding the old man’s sedan, the racket that has so often emanated from them is considered the epitome of primitiveness. Merely deeming a band’s sound “garage rock” effectively chains it to a state of perpetual primordiality, welcome or otherwise. But over the decades, garage rock has become much more than blundering stabs at Buddy Holly, the Shadows of Knight and the Ventures. Each consecutive pop culture trend — psychedelia, glam, punk, even disco — has been at one time or another brought into the mix, making garage rock of the 21st century a very complex beast, indeed. Purists will contend that the true nature of garage rock has been diluted, that artistic tunnel vision is the only assurance that the genre will never congest and bloat just like the over-produced hits it was originally opposing. Considering the multitude of back-to-basics ’60s rockers who enlisted in the arena-ready brigade of the ’70s, these purists may be right, and garage rock now exists as a marketing ploy to help the young forget the wasted rap-metal years. It is fitting, then, that the act heralded as kingpin in the new millennium’s neo-garage movement has gone out of its way to expand and flatly contradict the very ideals on which the scene was built. As a result, the White Stripes are the best modern garage band around, without really being a garage band at all. Rock is dead, long live rock.
In 1997, a pasty-faced upholsterer from Detroit named John Gillis recruited his unobtrusive ex-wife Megan White as the drummer for a highly conceptualized yet raw-as-sin guitar-drums duo, and created the White Stripes. Gillis became Jack White, stirred up some old-fashioned titillation by claiming his bandmate to be his sister-lover (who knew there was such a market for hillbilly lust?) and proceeded to paint everything the twosome touched with a peppermint-candy red-and-white palette. Musically speaking, the Stripes are more vibrant than their color scheme will have you believe. Eschewing the necrophilic new wave appeal of the Strokes and the embryonic-Stones fascination of the Hives (just to namedrop two other highly publicized trend- riders), Jack has sought musical salvation elsewhere. Building on the groundwork of Delta blues, he adds layer upon layer of less archaic influences: Dylan, for his ruffled genius quality; Iggy, for his appreciation of the beauty in abrasion; Marc Bolan, for his flashy pop precision; Led Zeppelin, for both their crunch and goo. With Meg’s minimalist Moe Tucker-ish timekeeping as a cherry on top — a sometimes sloppy, thudding cherry, but a cherry nonetheless — the Stripes’ melodic routine is a tasty treat.
That said, The White Stripes is nervous, hyperactive, artless and enticing, with only occasional reassuring glimpses of the depth within. Co-produced by White and fellow Detroit musician Jack Diamond, most of the 17 songs are straightforward blasts of distorto-blues that waver between Led Zep-inspired theatrics (“Suzy Lee,” “Screwdriver”) and punked-up thrashing (“The Big Three Killed My Baby,” “When I Hear My Name”). Jack’s womanly shriek and roughly amped playing work best in the powerful “Jimmy the Exploder” and “Cannon,” where the guitar can’t be touched ‘cuz it’s on fire! On the other hand, the insignificant “Little People,” “Slicker Drips” and “Wasting My Time” (which says it all in the title) go off like a sparkler — no heat. Only “Astro” and “Broken Bricks” adhere to a general garage-rock sound, but there’s a wink in every nonsense lyric and trouble-free riff. More time is allotted to unpredictable tributes to Jack’s musical forbearers like the uncredited lift from “John the Revelator” by Son House (the album’s dedicatee) at the end of “Cannon,” and a sizzling rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” in which Meg’s monosyllabic proto-punk stomp drives it to the crossroads and back again. The quirks truly come out in “One More Cup of Coffee” — which has Dylan redone as mournful cabaret — and the antiqued Cab Calloway sway of “St. James Infirmary.” Signs of a slightly more subtle future reside in “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” (an acoustic/tambourine folk ditty) and “Do,” which highlights Jack’s finesse as a guitarist and songwriter. Both songs add passion to the album’s monotonous excitability and help pace its bash ‘n’ crash momentum.
From such humble beginnings, greatness is achieved. The difference between the debut and De Stijl can be heard immediately in the bouncy power-pop of the first cut, “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl).” With its Merseybeat charm and catchy chorus, the tune points not to a loss of edge but to an acceptance of variation. The punk-blues rave-ups are still accounted for — the whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ in “Let’s Build a Home” and the sheer weight of “Jumble, Jumble” make certain of that — but De Stijl (named after an Dutch architectural-art movement — how’s that for an abrupt cultural leap?) is truly all about “the style.” Jack’s Jimmy Page-isms have blossomed, making “Hello Operator,” with its slick harmonica and effeminate vocals, and the traditional-sounding “Little Bird” much more than rote posturing. Son House (“Death Letter”) gets cranked and Blind Willie McTell (“Your Southern Can Is Mine”) receives a rustic rehash and a dedication, but the album is both closer to the blues and further away. “Sister Do You Know My Name” and “A Boy’s Best Friend” are wobbly ballads that owe as much to the Grand Ole Opry and hootenannies as they do to the Mississippi Delta, and “I’m Bound to Pack It Up,” a humbling cello-enhanced lament, recalls the softer side of Donovan or T. Rex (or Kansas, if you want to go down that road). With only minor flaws in Jack’s production — the melodramatic “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” is just plain irritating — De Stijl rightfully made the White Stripes real contenders.
That elevation was validated with White Blood Cells, a breakthrough release — and their worst album so far. Bolstered by 106 seconds of manic go-go punk called “Fell in Love With a Girl,” a song which became a hit single, the album’s success would imply that the Stripes had outdone themselves, that they achieved something even more playful and ear-catching than De Stijl. Not true. Despite a fruitful dedication to Loretta Lynn (Jack has since produced an album for her) and recorded in Memphis, and despite the stripped-down arrangements (no guitar solos) and the more contemporary song structures (no blues covers), too much of the album (“Expecting,” “Aluminum,” “I Can’t Wait,” “I Can Learn”) wallows in an odd, crusty hard-rock haze. Things fare much better when the duo is at its flightiest: “Hotel Yorba” sounds like Country Joe fronting the Violent Femmes, “We’re Going to Be Friends” is tearful and tender without a trace of irony, and the folky “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” still finds time to be raucous. Meanwhile, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” manages to conjure up some convincing metallic sludge, and “I Think I Smell a Rat” adds a strange Greek flavor to spice things up, but “The Union Forever” and “This Protector” (just to name two) are tedious and depressing. So much for public opinion.
Elephant, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, regardless of hype. From the bottom-heavy rumble of “Seven Nation Army” to the quaint vocal interplay with Britain’s Holly Golightly in “Well It’s True That We Love One Another,” Jack and Meg are at their best. Recorded in London on equipment from the early ’60s, Jack’s production somehow avoids an overtly retro feel in favor of something timeless. The obligatory freakabilly psych-outs (“Black Math,” “Hypnotize,” “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”) are more consistent than ever, the cover choice is exceptional (Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”) and the blues is expertly represented in “Ball and Biscuit,” which turns the name of a microphone into sex-in-the-juke-joint hipster slang. On Meg’s chilly turn at the mic, “In the Cold, Cold Night,” the shy chanteuse sings like she drums (and that’s not a bad thing) over a low-key organ-guitar backing. At the other end of the scale, Jack gets all artsy-fartsy on your ass in the multi-layered “There’s No Home for You Here,” calling to mind Queen or Todd Rundgren. Even sensitive singer-songwriter dreck is given a good name in “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.” Wherever you are, Elephant delivers.
As for the Stripes themselves, Elephant delivered them from the evils of cult status and made them stars. Jack became Hollywood’s Edward Scissorhands-like connection to a perceived hipster underworld as he dated an actress, married a model, popped up in movies, popped down to the Grammys as Loretta Lynn’s bashful, oddly dressed tagalong and smashed rival Detroit musician Jason Stollsteimer (of the Von Bondies) right in the face just for kicks. Meanwhile, Meg found fame being, well, Meg, a musician with no obvious talent, a rock star with no discernible personality. Pure fucking genius. Despite Jack’s madman-behind-the-console, I’m-the-Lizard-King-I-can-do-anything antics, the album born of this period, Get Behind Me Satan, never sounds like the fat getting fatter or the pompous getting poppier. It’s slack and puzzling and fun. Taken in context, the album’s title doesn’t necessarily refer to redemption. If anything, it’s about starting a really cool conga line.
“Blue Orchid,” the album opener and first single, is a precise little disco-punk deceiver that grinds like a hot rod ripping gears. The treated guitar and huge bass drum backbone inspires Jack, in a delivery both impassioned and comical, to flaunt his falsetto before the drummer breaks loose from the beat. From the sound of it, Meg doesn’t so much as play the drums on this album; she just kicks the kit down the stairs. Yet, as Jack’s musical aspirations grow loftier — i.e., the piano and marimba that frame eight of the 13 songs — Meg’s cymbal-happy ineloquence smears the sound with gritty DIY dirt. Similarly, Mr. White applies his reaffirmed affinity for Loretta Lynn’s work to several countrified tracks, including the ragtag bop of “My Doorbell” and the glib “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” a title sure to make the coalminer’s daughter very proud. Tinkling ivories does indeed replace much of the expected guitar outbursts, which works well in “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me),” a song just begging for drama, but not so much for a reverb-hungry headbutt like “The Denial Twist.” Elsewhere in Candyland, much remains the same: “Instinct Blues” is the perfunctory Zeppelin-as-punk rip, “As Ugly as I Seem” is the acoustic folkie and “Passive Manipulation” is Meg’s useless bit of feminist nursery rhyme. Not everything clicks on Get Behind Me Satan — sometimes it’s too timid and freaky — but enough of it is so unique, even within the Stripes’ own canon, that it succeeds regardless of its faults. White Stripes 1, Satan 0.
If Get Behind Me Satan had its uninspired moments, Icky Thump has no such flaws. The band’s major-label bow combines rediscovered energy with dynamite songwriting; the result is an album that rivals Elephant‘s excellence. Jack still makes his guitar scream (on both the title track and the gargantuan grooves of “Catch Hell Blues”), but what really sells the sizzle is that he and Meg sound like they are having fun. The wonderfully silly call-and-response romp “Rag and Bone” finds the pair requesting sundry junk from their neighbors. “Little Cream Soda” includes a walloping guitar riff and nostalgic childhood memories, while an irony-free cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” is a furious flamenco stomp. For good measure, the Stripes still know how to engage in fuzzed-out power pop (“You Don’t Know What Love Is, You Just Do as You’re Told”) and throw a nice curve ball with the bagpipe-laden “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn.” A a terrific album.