Now that the dust has settled on last summer's silly season feeding frenzy, when a few investigative tabloid journalists heralded The White Stripes as the next big thing after discovering them hidden away on the front cover of the NME, maybe the time is right for a more considered appraisal of the Jack and Meg phenomenon. Listening to "White Blood Cells", what strikes hardest is the album's rawness - if you find The Strokes too slick and overproduced you should try syringing your lobes with this. And then secondly you notice just how much racket they manage to kick up for a guitar and drums-only ensemble. Does the term power duo exist already? If not, The White Stripes have planted their flag on the definition as firmly as Cream did on the description power trio 35 years ago. And there are also some great songs here amidst the breathless 16 track rush on offer. "Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground" is a suitably scowling and abrasive opener that sets out the band's stall in no uncertain terms. The club style singalongaStripes "Hotel Yorba" is the perfect single choice, and the acoustic infant playground tale of "We're Going To Be Friends" might be the best few minutes on here.
And yet that's almost it, really. The songwriting doesn't maintain this high standard throughout "White Blood Cells", and as a consequence for great swathes of the album you can duck and cover from the impressively anti production, revel in the thin, wired and vaguely blues-based sheets of noise the duo unfurl at you, and maybe locate the source of the niggling suspicion that, for the most part, there's not much here that you could whistle on the way out. Unlike, for example, The Strokes' album. That petty consideration notwithstanding, "White Blood Cells" is a riot.
It may be worth mentioning that the recent XL reissue of the album is far more luxurious than the Sympathy For The Record Industry original, being blessed with red vinyl, a glossy sleeve and a lyric insert. All of which rather chimes against the deliberate primitivism of the music, but the choice is yours.
THE WHITE STRIPES De Stijl (XL Recordings)
Exhilarating as last year's tabloid-enhanced success of The White Stripes was, I couldn't quite shake the suspicion that their breakthrough album "White Blood Cells" didn't have enough songs to fill its not considerable length, and attempted to disguise the fact by piling on the noise and distortion. Hearing their previous long player "De Stijl" leads me to think that my suspicions might have been founded, because this album tears shreds off its successor, being a rip-roaring, blueswailing no-budget theatrical extravaganza from beginning to end. In fact, listening to "De Stijl" it's almost possible to imagine the kind of impact the first blues boom bands such as The Yardbirds might have had on hip urban British audiences forty years ago, as here Jack and Meg are amped up enough to shake, rattle and roll even the most cynical and jaded modern listener.
"You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)" is a glorious, stomping bubblegum glam-punk opener, but at the other end of the Stripes spectrum "I'm Bound To Pack It Up" makes do with an acoustic guitar, a violin and some primitive percussion, as well as killer couplets like "The bus is warm and softly lit/And a hundred people ride in it". Any doubts of their near-devilish facility with the real folk blues are swiftly obliterated by a scorching tumble through Son House's "Death Letter". Of course, it's low octane stuff compared to the original, but searing alongside the output of any other white blues band you might care to name - the Stripes are so energised they make Cream look dustily reverential in comparison.
"Sister, Do You Know My Name?" offers more charming schoolyard reminiscences a la "White Blood Cells"' "We're Going To Be Friends", whilst "Truth Doesn't Make A Noise" cheekily rifles Mexican riffs from Bob Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee", a song covered elsewhere in the band's discography. The album's second cover is another highlight, even in this exalted company, a brilliant, jangling shuffle through Blind Willie McTell's "Your Southern Can Is Mine". Feet are obliged to move in a manner that a depressingly high percentage of dance music will never understand. Its followed by what sounds like an extract from an archive interview with the composer himself, which is a lovely, disorientating touch.
"De Stijl" is a brilliant album, undoubtedly the band's greatest achievement so far. It's rough, ragged and raw - every track appears to be presaged by a tidal wave of hiss and amplifier noise - and bristling with ideas and invention.
THE WHITE STRIPES The White Stripes (XL Recordings)
More White Stripes, this being their 1999 debut, and it's another fine slab of primal electricity and hollering fury. The band crunch, crash, rock and buck just like the dream punk blues jukebox that they are. A cover of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" finds Jack White shredding Mick Jagger's mincing and posturing through a megaphone, whilst he and Meg hammer out on instrumental backbone that's pricklier than Spiny Norman. Single "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is a sludgy, sinewy, glam-blues stomp and, as far as I can decipher from the lyric sheet, an oblique critique of the American automobile industry. (Well, The Stripes are from Detroit, after all.)
"Sugar Never Tasted So Good" is all acoustic, strummy and thumpy, and "Cannon" plays freely and crudely with the riff from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". "Astro" is as simple as the album gets, a kind of bubblegum schoolyard chant, underlining just how many tricks the band can play with just throat, guitar and drums. "Screwdriver" is riddled with the kind of elastic, leapfrogging melody suggested by its title, and Bob Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee" is recast as pure outlaw blues, something in Jack White's wail distantly echoing the nasal honk of the song's author as a distant church organ passes some kind of judgement of its own. There's also a rolling, piano-led, poverty-stricken tumble through "St. James Infirmary Blues", somewhat less sumptuous than the version Van Morrison's been performing in concert in recent years.
So, another great White Stripes album, and the further I delve into their catalogue the more substance I discover to counteract the wild hype of a summer back. If "The White Stripes" doesn't topple "De Stijl" from its perch as their greatest long player so far, it's still a supersonic 17 track travelogue through the last century of American popular song. It might not have the elegance of Dylan's "Love And Theft", for example, but in its own way it's on the same side of the tracks.
THE WHITE STRIPES Elephant (XL Recordings)
It's hard to think of any other album of recent times more in danger of being crushed under its own hype. For a while last year it seemed impossible to be able to turn a page of the NME without being reminded of how the Detroit duo recorded "Elephant" for two and six in the vehemently pre-decimalization and digitalisation environs of Hackney's Toe-Rag Studios. The former music paper-turned-comic then decreed the album to be one of the finest 100 of all time even before its release. Promo copies of "Elephant" were only issued to hacks on vinyl, apparently an anti-bootlegging manoeuvre ensuring that any writer without a gramophone was denied access. Finally, when issued, it turned up in a plethora of territory-dependant covers.
And, having finally got round to buying it myself six months after the fact, whilst I appreciate that they've broadened and built massively on the flimsy foundations of the White Stripes experience without the faintest whiff of the dreaded compromise, I'm not totally won over by "Elephant". Perhaps the key is in the chosen cover version. On previous outings Jack and Meg have interpreted works by Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan. Here they offer a somewhat overwrought "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", in which Mr White's slashing guitar flash doesn't quite substitute for the deep pools of pain concealed in Dusty Springfield's voice. On "Elephant" a thin coating of pop sheen veneers their backporch electric blues, and although it's hardly a sell-out I can't help but think that there's less to chew on here than in previous works. Certainly, there's less (maybe even no) feedback-flecked filler than "White Blood Cells" carried, but on the other hand there's more in the way of deliberate distraction. Whilst not quite in the "Sgt. Pepper" league of production trickery it seems as though every other track features some kind of sleight of hand, whether it's the Queen-indebted vocal histrionics of "There's No Home For You Here", Mort Crim's self-improvement spiel introducing "Little Acorns" or the Jack/Meg/Holly Golightly trio "It's True That We Love Each Other", deftly bridging country and western and music hall. And even the less overdressed items seem to be cackling at their own cleverness, such as the playful subversion of early Led Zeppelin on "Ball And Biscuit" and the concise, witty "The Hardest Button To Button"- yes, it's great fun and obscenely tuneful but ultimately, so what?
The thing about "Elephant" is, whilst I appreciate that it's great, it doesn't generate any fonder feelings in me than that. In this respect it reminds of other recentish albums such as Coldplay's "A Rush Of Blood To The Head" and Doves' "The Last Broadcast", works which, in attempting to amplify the qualities of their respective predecessors, only succeeded in being inflated, gaudy things low on staying power and substance. "Elephant" is elegant, chunky entertainment, but no more.
THE WHITE STRIPES Get Behind Me Satan (XL Recordings
For the most part, the fifth White Stripes album junks the scratchy blues boom authenticity of its predecessors, setting sail for relatively unexplored soundscapes. Get Behind Me Satan hasnt exactly been scrubbed free of loud, wailing electric guitars, but theyacoustic guitar or piano. Recorded in Jack Whites living room, the occasional re frequently usurped by marimba, bells, homely element on the track My Doorbell seeps in, although the kitchen clatter, or the doorbell ringing, the latter sadly not generally constricted, boxy acoustic also betrays the albums origins.
Blue Orchid sweeps away preconceptions from the start, its brittle hard rock sounding like a 70s FM radio staple, somewhere between Glitter Band stomp and Aerosmith at their most slippery and feline. Both it and the marimba-driven The Nurse which follows end with a decisive abruptness. The aforementioned My Doorbell is a jaunty, funky even, chirpy, cheeky highlight, just piano- and percussion-powered, with Jack hollering from the back of the room.
Perhaps tellingly, the booklet photos show two people out of both time and place, dressed in the kind of garb Jack might have rifled from the set of the Anthony Minghellas civil war epic Cold Mountain, in which he appeared. Its a theme thats echoed gently within the songs. For example, when writing about the pressures of celebrity something hes better placed than ever to pontificate about given that the downtime between Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan has seen him both split up with Renee Zellweger and be charged with aggravated assault following a fracas with the lead singer of the Von Bondies Jack frames his thoughts in the thumpy acoustic form of Take, Take, Take, in which the protagonist encounters Rita Hayworth in a bar and pesters her with ever more unreasonable demands.
Little Ghost is more joyous hokum, a tale of supernatural affection with nothing to suggest that it couldnt be centuries old; Instinct Blues ascends to a kind of Hendrix or Clapton level of six-string experimentation, yet somehow both fuzzier and more soulful. Meg is granted the briefest sliver of a vocal showcase with Passive Manipulation. The complex interpersonal relationships between the two Stripes - evidence of their divorce has surfaced on the internet, yet at the end of the visual document of their 2004 Blackpool shows Live Under Blackpool Lights Jack refers to Meg as his sister receive another mythic twist on the bittersweet piano kiss-off Im Lonely (But I Aint That Lonely Yet), with the lines I love my sister/Lord knows how Ive missed her And sometimes I get jealous/Of all her little pets.
Although those who share the bands hankering for elderly, if effective, technology might be disappointed that its currently only available on CD, the duo have plans to release a live-in-the-studio track-by-track remake only on vinyl. Which is good news, because overall, Get Behind Me Satan is a brave experiment that enchants far more often than it deters, and certainly good enough to warrant buying twice.
THE WHITE STRIPES Icky Thump (Third Man/XL Recordings)
The White Stripes sixth album is thick with the acrid crunch of overheated elderly electronics and garnished by Jack Whites continued pursuit of chivalry and personal responsibility in an age seemingly phobic towards such concerns.
The title track makes for an appropriately brawling, two-fisted opening attack; You Dont Know What Love Is (You Just Do As Youre Told) is a cruel-to-be-kind attempt to shake up and empower the weaker partner in a potentially abusive relationship. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues is an unnervingly accurate reconstruction of side one of Jacks buddy Bobs Bringing It All Back Home, girdled with some searing guitar sounds I cant think of any currently active lyricist who does Dylanesque better (well, apart from the obvious exception!). One of several role-reversal songs on the album, Conquest was written back in the 1950s by one Corky Robbins, and popularised by Patti Page; its probably safe to presume that there was less squally mariachi thumping on her version. Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn and St. Andrew (The Battle Is In The Air) are bagpiped and baffling, the latter in particular with Megs varispeed recitation. The duo play a Detroit Steptoe & Son on the environmentally-minded Rag And Bone, and, on perhaps the albums highest light, the potentially icky (ha!) teenage infatuation storyline of A Martyr For My Love For You is diffused by Jacks innate sense of correctness.
So, another very fine White Stripes album, then, one that easily ranks alongside their best work, whichever your personal favourite may be, squeezing yet more sonic sparks out of their primitive vocals/guitar/drums lineup. The UK vinyl pressing fower (it says here) short sides of heavy vinyl sounds pretty good too.