erasing clouds

The White Stripes, Elephant (V2/Third Man Recordings)

reviewed by john wenzel

Elephant bounds into view with the formidable "Seven Nation Army," possibly the best opening track The White Stripes have put to tape. Its muscular, descending bassline (actually a guitar through an octave pedal) hits with such force that Jack White's screechy vocals sound positively tentative by comparison.

He whispers - playfully, hoarsely - as the rhythm embeds itself, kick drums thwacking against studio walls, snares snapping like dry fingers. Sing-songy falsetto soon turns to abrasive chanting. Restraint is tossed aside and Jack howls, unleashing his fury on the guitar, hands sliding up and down the neck with brutal precision.

The thrill you get from these opening chords, as raw, succinct and gloriously amped-up as they are, is akin to hearing Is This It or Oh, Inverted World for the first time: you sense you're waist-deep in a contemporary rock masterpiece, and only getting deeper. The Stripes engage in a number of firsts on this album (actual guitar solos, vocals by Meg White) and if you're a diehard fan, you'll be pissing yourself with glee. The casual listener, however, may be less impressed, and for the same reasons they were on previous albums.

Elephant, as everyone knows by now, is The White Stripes' crushingly anticipated follow-up to their 2001 breakthrough disc White Blood Cells. As market-savvy poster children for the garage rock revival, Jack and Meg White have been criticized and lauded for any number of repercussions their music has had on the current scene, and justifiably so. But what this type of social-context criticism obscures is the basic tone of their songs and the visceral impact it has on listeners. Doesn't anyone care if this is a good party album? The Stripes have never disappointed with their sheer energy, or their ability to synthesize a host of worthy influences. Authenticity? That's another matter.

This issue becomes somewhat prickly as the album develops. "Black Math" is a bouncy rocker with typically hyperactive vocals, the chorus of which recalls "Fell in Love with a Girl" (which in turn recalled The Pretenders' "Middle of the Road.") "There's No Home for You Here" recycles "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" through a Queen filter. The Burt Bacharach cover "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," despite the radical mood change, is still cloying as hell. "In the Cold, Cold Night" plants Meg's thin, tentative vocals atop a picked electric line, recalling a pleasant but second-rate Astrud Gilberto. A bit of Creedence-style slide guitar lubricates "I Want to Be the Boy…" while "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" is a surprisingly intimate acoustic pool hall ballad.

It's good to hear that fame hasn't made the Stripes afraid to leave mistakes in their music: "Ball and Biscuit" may feature several less-than-perfect instrumental moments, but the antiseptic lure of digital technology is nowhere to be found. This song cranks up the attitude with bald sexual grunts and some splintered but intuitively brilliant guitar solos, bulging at over seven minutes. "The Hardest Button to Button" and "Little Acorns" sound more like The Cars practicing in a tight garage than the Stripes in a big British studio. The rest of album varies from blistering blues-punk ("Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine") to cheeky folk ("It's True That We Love One Another.")

Repetition in these songs is inescapable, given the limited instrumentation and Jack's seeming four-chord guitar knowledge. You've gotta wonder how many variations still exist in the ole Zeppelin-Lite trick bag. Is there anything here that hasn't been done before, and better? Even well-meaning stuff comes off as ultimately pointless. Jack takes great pride in the vintage, all-analog production of these songs. Mentions it a few times in the liner notes. But the fact that 96% of Elephant's copies will be purchased on a digital medium kinda cancels out that whole sound-purist, fidelity-range thing. The difference will be inaudible to most fans, even if they buy this on vinyl and play it on a $500 turntable.

To be fair, this album will probably get its ass kicked more than it should. Hype is a bitch, as the Stripes well know. It's hard to do anything right when you have the weight of the world's self-important music critics on your crotch (myself included). But that comes with the territory, another thing I'm also sure they've learned by now.

"Postmodern art rock thinly veiled as blues" seems to be the consensus on this album among writers for other leading music rags. I won't argue with that. I will add that loud-ass guitar chords, succinct rhythms, and impassioned playing do much to make up for the lack of originality. Like The Strokes and The Shins, the Stripes are reverent of their influences, in spite of the layers of irony and in-jokes. When the music's this fucking good, authenticity becomes a side-issue.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

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