As much as I love The White Stripes, they do kind of seem like a band that would put out a “greatest hits” on their own label, 13 years after their last new LP. And lo and behold, as reports Rolling Stone and every other journal from sea to shining sea, that’s just what they’re doing, in the form of the succinctly titled The White Stripes Greatest Hits, due December 4th on Columbia and Jack White’s own Third Man Records.
My first exposure to The White Stripes came, perhaps ironically, by way of MTV, which by April of 2002 would have been on their absolute last gasp of video-playing efficacy. And really, in my experience, The Stripes have never been a huge radio denizen, although you have to admit you still can’t go anywhere without hearing “Seven Nation Army.” I once observed this band of high schoolers cover it at this bar up in Lansing (they certainly looked too young to be drinking) and the Michigan band has even been known to belt out that riff at football games.
Anyway, this, along with the fact that I don’t think I ever saw another video of theirs on MTV or MTV2, makes it a little bit disconcerting that they’d put out something called a “Greatest Hits.” I mean, does this band have any “hits” under their belt, aside from “Seven Nation Army,” which in its own right seems to by fabric of reception be more of a cult favorite than a mainstream anthem? My first impression of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” the first song I heard by them, was that it was hilariously simple — something for which I liked it, actually. This was the veritable throes of bent toward pretention in mainstream rock, with every band on the planet seeming to throw pointless tidbits of ostentatiousness into their songs from rapping, to DJ scratching, to of course a general tendency toward acting like life revolves around the current relationship they’re in (a plague that will probably never dissipate as long as music continues to be a “business,” as they say).
By comparison, the lyrics in “Fell in Love with a Girl,” right down of course to the impersonal nature of the subject depicted in the title, are excitingly nonchalant. The events move fast. “Kissing by the riverside” is glossed over by parties which “don’t conisder it cheating”.
And the music itself is pointedly, distinctly direct. I would call it unpretentious and of course it is but that would perhaps be an erroneous descriptor because it’s truly almost pretentious for its very level of apparent, surface unpretentiousness. There’s essentially no “production” on the track at all in an age of egregiously overproduced slop — it’s just Marshall stacks and Meg White’s drums, in all their raw glory, jettisoned straight to the final mix. Similar to punk rock, it makes a sort of defiance of the present norm by way of excessive, almost barbaric simplicity. But as I allude to earlier, I think the Stripes were making a statement in terms of just their production itself, which comes across as boldly DIY, than instrumentation and song structure, which would have been punk’s rudimentary trademark and revelation.
Anyway, in this way, and with their ubiquity, well-rounded approach to songwriting and undeniably catchy songs, The White Stripes more than ingratiated themselves to the median stature of a member of the “garage rock revival” which included also The Strokes, The Hives and The Vines, among others, in the early 2000s. They’re not “indie” but Jack White apparently had a subversive knack for the industry because he’s had his “Third Man” label since the Stripes started and now obviously retains rights to all the material he’s ever put out (including side projects like The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, as well as solo projects, that are on that very label). With The Strokes, they earmark that underdog, iconoclastic sector of the mainstream that’s sort of just barely treading water but also, you’ve got to say, is doing so on sheer strength of some great, hummable songs.
As a way of synopsizing what seems now to be their consummate career, anyway, as a duo of Jack White on guitar and vocals and Meg White on drums (taking on though vocal duties for certain novelty tracks), I’ve decided to compile a fairly brief compendium that will analyze each of their albums individually, along with slotting the specific function of said album within their own discography and within rock at large. It’s part of my intention here to illustrate that this was really an albums band and, at the risk of detracting from this new “greatest hits” that’s on its way, show how these LP’s, taken as autonomous musical experiences, squall forth with some distinct and singular content toward representing authentic, purposeful journeys.
The White Stripes (1999) — Liberation period and confidence builder. Madden score: 56/100
If there’s one thing you need to be a virtuosic blues-rock firebrand, especially if you’re white and the world has already been weaned on Everlast and techno, it’s confidence. But then, if there’s one thing you lack of you’re a herky-jerky white dude from Detroit, it might be just that, too. Enter this self-titled debut, which was aptly dubbed for its basic bareness and naturally truncated ambition level, but which you’d still know was Jack and Meg by the ferocious way they hem and haw in coyly systematic rhythm, through this Delta-soaked, caterwauling alternative rock. “Jimmy the Exploder”; “Stop Breaking down” and “The Big Three Killed My Baby”; anyway, suggest that this could have been a near-perfect EP.
De Stijl (2000) — Mortar and pestle blues-rock. Madden score: 89/100
It’s funny how anachronistic all of this stuff is. Now, in 2000, if you were to put this album on, it would have of course blasted forth as very retro, with its simplistic grooves and Muddy-Waters-turned-up-a-notch riffs. In fact, it was so retro contemporarily that it was foreign, hence producing even more of its appeal.
But now I honestly think “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” is offensive, despite the fact that it’s obviously meant as tongue-in-cheek and was certainly received as such upon its release and through the better part of the 2000s decade, more or less. Doesn’t it seem, though, like today people have lost their ability to take a joke, or to IDENTIFY a joke, and would take a puerile quip like this seriously?
Regardless, belying its caustically simple instrumentation and general musical m.o. is some real layered emotional complexity, which, along with some killer Led Zeppelin cover band histrionics, helps make this sucker soar. I mean just listen to “Apple Blossom” and “I’m Bound to Pack it up” in succession: it’s a love song followed by what basically amounts to a confession of love’s hopelessness, sort of like what White would allude to later on “The Union Forever” from their next album White Blood Cells: “It can’t be love / For there is no true love”. It’s depressing but luckily we get a reprieve really quickly in the form of the relentless and bizarre cover of Son House’s “Death Letter”; which comes replete with copious funeral images and motifs of pervasive hopelessness and despair (which is about the only thing that could distract you from the beleaguered message of “I’m Bound to Pack it up,” at that point, as it were).
In general the whole album is really solid and some other songs I always go back to for playlists are “Let’s Build a Home”; “Jumble, Jumble” and “Why Can’t You Be Nicer to Me?”, the middle of which might just feature the most hilariously simple guitar riff ever put to wax. Again, this is a band that routinely made simplicity its m.o. and perhaps even its meal ticket, and for that, they should be smiled at, if not necessarily explicitly lauded.
White Blood Cells (2001)– The band’s pop album. Madden score: 93/100
This album was my first experience with this band both for having produced “Fell in Love with a Girl” and also as the first LP I took in as a whole. Somewhere in there came the popular spread of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the excellent, infectious opener, and so I learned to lean on that song as my unofficial favorite track on the album, with it being way more bluesy than “Fell in Love with a Girl,” blues being something this band generally did exceptionally well. From there, we probably get our first taste of campy folk (of which there would be plenty to come later, especially on the supremely weird Get behind Me Satan album from ’05) in “Hotel Yorba,” a slightly off-putting but ultimately fun number about rustic, anachronistic bliss. “I’m Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman” is droll, humorous stock material from the band, that probably could have been a minor hit in its own right, feeding into “Fell in Love with a Girl,” which still might be the band’s most popular song next to “Seven Nation Army.”
It’s tempting to say that the filler is what makes White Blood Cells most entertaining, in the form of the one-minute absurdist vignette “Little Room” and the unorganized thump of silly abrasion that is “Aluminum,” but this would of course be discounting the tender, melodic poignancy of “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” and the gut-check immediacy of “Offend in Every Way.” Through it all, somehow, it’s the tracks that fall somewhere in between that give this album its true backbone — your “Expecting”; your “The Union Forever” and your “I Think I Smell a Rat”; et. al. — little eruptions that come across charmingly unorganized and ultimately, nothing, if not raw.
Elephant (2003) — Tour-de-force. Madden score: 97/100
Jack White articulates in the opener on Elephant, “Seven Nation Army,” that “A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back,” and let’s just say that sets the tone pretty pertinently for the caterwauling bath of blues-rock pandemonium that’s about to follow. If there were any stragglers left doubting The White Stripes’ ability to write a classic song and to stronghold a dominance over the totality of alternative rock at a given time, they were gone by the end of Elephant.
Of course occluded by the staunch, almost vulgar ubiquity of “Seven Nation Army,” my muddled memory still does serve up some nuggets of lucidity on the subject that is Elephant. It came out my sophomore year in college, a time when my appreciation for and knowledge of music was on something of a modest upswing, and it offered the eccentric, erudite but ultimately clear and forceful template I needed to exercise my hungry noggen on a good ol’, unassuming rock album. Along with fully indulging in “Black Math” but figuring it to be probably too abrasive for most of my friends and acquaintances, I pored over the puzzling lyrics to “There’s No Home for You Here,” a narrative slab of pure hatred and victory full of hazy, twisted vocals and piercing frills of feedback.
I make often use of the phrase “the shocker” on this site to denote a mind-blowing moment on a particular album that sort of changes your conception of what music can accomplish. Well, Elephant is an album with more than one shocker, the initial one being the stupefying beautiful pop nugget “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” with its gorgeous steel guitar solo, and the latter being the formidable, preternatural beast that is “Ball and Biscuit.” “Ball and Biscuit” is a song that’s probably pretty risque and overtly sexual — it’s the aural replica of the noxious, tempestuous desire a man has the capability of feeling for a woman, inside. Yes, there was a time when our society wasn’t like grotesquely sterile to the point of thinking this kind of thing shameful.
Actually, Jack White had been voted the 17th best guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone just a couple months before Elephant came out, and I thought it was like the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. After hearing “Ball and Biscuit,” I was weighing him right up there against Stevie Ray Vaughn and Dwayne Allman, if not necessarily Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. But the solos in “Ball and Biscuit” are canonical stuff — it’s not pop music at all but rather the virtuosic work of a master performer on his instrument, like Wynton Marsalis on the trumpet or Bela Fleck on the banjo. In a sense, it almost stands as the last possible gasp for rock virtuosity, other later stylistically astonishing moments coming in the overly percussive (Battles) or the predilection toward electro (uh, also Battles).
It’s the variety, too, that makes Elephant really go, as the band seem to sprinkle in at least one session of aching, delicate melody (“The Air Near My Fingers”; “Well it’s True That We Love One Another”) for every unadulterated blast at your ear drums (“Little Acorns”; “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine”). Another standout is “The Hardest Button to Button,” an unnerving and ambiguous tale of everything going wrong within modern family values that totes a spooky and brilliant music video.
Get behind Me Satan (2005) — A concept album on morality and Satan. Madden score: 86/100
As the legend goes, Robert Johnson, standing at “the crossroads,” somewhere in the deep South near Memphis or thereabouts, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for celestial, indefatigable skills on the guitar. Then, Ian Brown of The Stone Roses produced the lyrics “I don’t need to sell my soul / He’s already in me / I wanna be adored”.
Jack White, it might be said, falls somewhere in between. Of course, I’m joking… I’m not actually ascribing to the singer any actual Satanic qualities.
But Elephant was, shall we say, indulgent. And sometimes it’s easy to underestimate the meaning of stuff you let on when you’re out there He** bent on becoming the greatest, which, if White didn’t actually do, he certainly approached pretty closely.
I think, anyway, that the prurient desires and the sense of urgency professed on much of Elephant might have spawned an inner backlash in him — some “soul searching,” literally, and hence spawned him to try to do some maintenance on his own moral disposition, in tandem with an album about just that. I mean, just listen to this sucker — there’s almost no blues on it and the first song sounds like The Scissor Sisters, as I think one girl down at IU noted when she first heard it. It’s everything their past work wasn’t — it’s slick, it’s androgynous, it’s CONTEMPORARY, so to speak, not the sort of conspicuous throwback that most of their Delta-rock shtick tended to strut as, before.
Now, I think this album was CONCEIVED as a concept album about morality, only to break down for certain head-scratching moments like “Forever for Her (is over for Me)” and “Instinct Blues” — two songs each of which offers heavy, and perhaps regrettable, sexual themes. Things seem to come back together at the end, though, when we get a reversion to the retro (a motif first bolstered by the goofy and primitive “My Doorbell”) before a snapshot of a sort of ugliness of the “soul” (“As Ugly As I Seem”) and a confrontational disposition before devilish imagery (“Red Rain”). If there’s one thing for certain from this project, anyway, it’s that as afraid as Jack White was of going to He**, he was 10 times more afraid of being plain or conventional in any way. Lastly, don’t skip out on the closeur “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Only Yet),” which features some apt piano playing from White as well as some caustic, heartbreaking honesty.
Icky Thump (2007) — A sytematic succession of blind, uncompromising icky thumps. Madden score: 91/100
The only podcast I have any respect for, Gear Club, had the great Joe Chiccarelli on one time, and he detailed the experience of handling the mixing for this album. Actually, from the episode, the listener gets the impression that Chiccarelli was at least the co-producer, and indeed even on Wikipedia it spells out how Chiccarelli was instrumental in experimenting with “different ways to record the drums, or different arragements…” which would certainly entail more than just the “mixing” for which the web page gives him credit.
Basically, the long and short is that Chiccarelli heard the album as it had been originally recorded by White and kind of said, “Ok, but what if we make it ALL LOUD AND CRAZY!??” And thump. There you have it. That’s how this ear-pummeling beast came into play.
And it’s not that this album doesn’t have songs on it. But it would be certainly hard to imagine the blistering, unapologetic title track opener played at a normal volume — that’s a track that just exudes caterwaul and needs a production volume to match. From there, the onslaught continues, perhaps being just a tad overblown on the solo in “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues,” but elsewhere summoning up one He** of a mix for a thickly rewarding rock album.
“Catch He** Blues” is indeed a song that could have come on the prior record, for its spiritual theme, but also, in a way, wouldn’t have fit in. It finds a perfect home on Icky Thump with its emphatic blues-rock swagger and, probably thanks to Chiccarelli, voluminous bath of reverb and texture.
Also, you won’t believe me, but THE LAST SONG ON THIS WHITE STRIPES ALBUM ACTUALLY ISN’T A PIECE OF KITSCHY CRAP! “Effect and Cause,” in fact, is pretty da**ed awesome, a straight-ahead guitar pop tune that might have landed on White Blood Cells but surely corrals even a slightly thicker vial of emotion, toward a woman who left him and is blaming the relationship collapse on him, hence confusing the “effect” and the “cause.” It’s a sad enough song to aptly close out the White Stripes catalogue, which is saying something, sort of like Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” and after all the wondrous and strange rock fury Jack and Meg have made us privy to over the years, it’s perfectly excusable for him to just get up and play the whiny blame game, at least for a little bit.