The Album List: #46 White Stripes “Elephant”


Fringey.

“Rock and roll is dead. Long live rock and roll.”

That’s what the Who said. The music press, though, has announced the demise of the genre since Elvis was King. It seems that every ten years or so some high and mighty music writer declares the genre dead. This is usually based on album sales and singles charts. The fact is that the current market is depressed for albums and that pop music and R&B always sells better as singles. Rock fans love albums, but they’ll only buy GOOD albums. Or Steely Dan albums. Or ELO.

The current spate of “rock is dead” articles lament the rise of Gaga and Rihanna, and the overuse of auto tune. I have no problem with wither Gaga or Rihanna, and auto tune has been used since records first existed in some form or another. The lack of imagination in rock and roll is a more valid claim for the current state of the genre. If OK Go put as much effort in their songs as they did the videos for them, I would love them as opposed to like them. But this doesn’t feel any different to me than the same whingeing that happened about ten years ago.

Then the Strokes came along and indie rock blossomed quickly.

The White Stripes are an anomaly. Part indie rock innovators, part blues and country revivalists, part barbershop pole, the dazzled critics off the bat with their two person genius. It would be the album that shot them into the stratosphere, all on the simple backbeats and inventive guitar work of Meg and Jack White.

Yes, Meg is not a fantastic drummer ( I don’t think she’s as terrible as all that, either), but she served her purpose well. Jack, however, is near genius as a musician and songwriter. The White Stripes never produced a bad record. As a result, among music geeks like myself, their very existence made life exciting. Each album turned into an event, and by the time the band announced its demise earlier this year, they had reached the status of “Only band that matters” in music circles. Many of the bands that came out of the 2001 scene- particularly the Strokes- failed to live up to their promise. The White Stripes exceeded theirs.

From the opening notes of  deep, impending doom in “Seven Nation Army”, sharp feedback and choiresque vocals in “There’s No Home Here For You”, the melancholic and sweet cover of Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” to the Meg vocal on the mysterious and dark “In The Cold, Cold Night”, the punkish “The Hardest Button To Button”, and the loose triple vocal action with Holly Golightly that closes the record, the album is both a love letter to the sounds of Americana sand an assault to one’s senses. Jack white doesn’t hold back. Frustration, anger, and sadness permeates the lyrics,  and his guitar will both bash your face in and gently lull you into tranquility. All the while, Meg’s primitive but effective drumming creates a solid and unique background for Jack’s experiments. The band would get more inventive over their next two records, but the wildness began here.

Hearing the White Stripes for the first time on the heels of the release of second album De Stijl was an interesting moment for me- clearly talented as a band, with a strong dynamic between the two members. It’s actually a mistake, I believe, to expect technical excellence on the behalf of these two- Jack is actually a damn fine guitarist, as his side projects prove, and Meg’s drumming skills have always been mediocre at best. But as long as it is just the two of them, it works brilliantly. Meg got better with each subsequent album ( I think she’s a step below Ringo in the “Adequate Drummers” club). Jack got wilder and more inventive. “Fell In Love With A Girl”, their breakthrough single from their previous album White Blood Cells was a brief punk explosion matched with a brilliant Michel Gondry video and made Elephant the most talked about album of 2003.

The songs on Elephant are indeed fantastic. But it’s the little moments in the songs that make the album special- the walking bass line not done on bass of “Seven Nation Army”, the guitar solo that rages on in “Ball and Biscuit”, the Robert Plant phrasing Jack uses on a couple of tracks, the loopy genius of album closer “It’s True That We Love One Another”. Moments with in great songs create anticipation as the album builds and makes me want to sit with a record for days- weeks even.  If Jack wHite was trying to be the next Robert Johnson, he failed. If he was trying to be the next George Thorogood, he far exceeded that. He has, however, created a new American rock archetype- crazed blues axe slinger marketing genius.

The White Stripes didn’t save rock and roll. They just reminded us that there is something better out there than Nickelback. And that as long as the indie world exists, there will always be something better than Nickelback.

Also, Meg’s vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night” is brilliant, and I don’t care what you all think. I love Meg. Get over yourselves, you insignificant rock critics.

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