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Red and White All Over

Photo by Patrick Pantano

More than a few of us were worried about how the White Stripes' Jack & Meg White were going to hold up under the spotlight. Huge sales for the Detroit duo's last album, White Blood Cells, and the accompanying worldwide huzzahs, MTV, Letterman and Conan might've made lesser bands start to feel self-conscious and, you know, contrived, the first sign of the beginning of the end for any pop combo. But all that media glare doesn't appear to trouble Jack White too much. With the Stripes' new release, Elephant — a real hell-raiser — White proves that all the hype is just grist for his mill.

Recorded in London on "eight-track reel-to-reel" and heaped with the swamp and folk blues, show tunes and garage rock crapola, Elephant jolts off with "Seven Nation Army," Jack's trademark voice-in-a-tin-can addressing his supposed frustration with the pressures of fame. He declares, like any genuine bluesman would, that he's doomed and damned, and he wants out: "All the words are gonna bleed from me and I will think no more." But Jack glides into a series of simply hysterical electric slide solos, and you catch the sound of a rockboy completely in the moment; he may be doomed, but he's loving it.

Actually, Jack's got other, bigger things to worry about; at least his nuevo-bluesman protagonist does. The problem seems to be those troublesome old crosshairs he encounters when he gets tangled up in love and sex and his persistent yearning for home sweet home. In "The Air Near My Fingers" Jack's all wound up and nervous about some girl because he's uncertain whether he wants her anyway — damn, isn't he just looking for his mother? Or he wants to escape Mom's clutches, and his lap-dogging all these women out there only serves to make him feel kinda insecure. In "Fell in Love With a Girl" Jack tried on the clothes of the big suave romancer, but it's just not happening — that's like something he saw on TV once; under her gaze, why, he's just another meek geek.

A stud or a dud, he doesn't know — at least his stock rock character stays mystified. That character portrays the mutant strands of every shy and respectful rebel-without-a-cause ever come down the youth-sensation pike. It's all a masterfully crafted amalgamation of the love/sex conundrum that fires rock's blood. Jack's a natural poet, by the way, and his words on this record are wild and witty; I'd say they're largely overshadowed by the demented instrumental force of his band, except that increasingly his lyrical prowess has grown to compete with his playing and conceptual chops.

Even so, the White Stripes are first and foremost an awesomely intelligent and aware slab of sound, and they're still punky, so when they do a cover of Bacharach/David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," they don't just make a hash of it — they sip its red wine and spew out a simply great rock song. But even slathered in wiggling Jimmy Page guitar derangement and drummer Meg's Moe Tucker bambam, the melody of the song remains the prime stuff — White understands that it simply ought not be touched. Likewise, on "In the Cold, Cold Night" Meg gets to sing, and it's girlishly coy, coming off deeper for its knowing amateurishness. It's like they're sucking the marrow; they play blues, they never play the blues. That'd be beside the point.

Note that the White Stripes, like the great blues or folk musicians, don't need a damn bass guitar, that great Satan which has rhythmically straitjacketed bands since the dawn of rock time. Jack White doesn't use a bass guitar, although he does get a bass sound on "Seven Nation Army" by running his ax through an octave-divider — which is funny because the liner notes boast that "no computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record." Which is bull pucky, but that's beside the point, too: The White Stripes are Luddite ironists whose electric fossil fuel is the illusion of authenticity.

That's a real fake authenticity, obviously, ingeniously deflecting from the conceit while simultaneously drawing attention to it. Jack gets in a rock-guy's kiss-off song with "There's No Home for You Here": When he sings "Go away!" he sounds righteous and familiar, like he's on a "woman I got to ram-bole" rant. But it's a fancied-up rant, one whose dynamics, pacing and structure have been given careful scrutiny, considerations that are apparent in most any cut on the disc. So the Americana music the White Stripes revel in slackens and slows in fits and starts purposefully to accommodate a multitracked Queen-like (Greek) chorus of Jack's emphasizing disdain in glorious heavenly harmony. Jack then rips out some of the craziest electric guitar solos you or I have ever heard, enormous lewd thunder from the black clouds above. The eight-minute opus "Ball and Biscuit" ("Let's have a ball, and take our sweet time about it") is a rude monster, too, from the words themselves — sung like Jagger circa "Down the Road Apiece" or maybe like George Thorogood (sorry) — down to the sarcastically bluesy way he phrases 'em, as if to say, "The name is White." And each time he crawls in sopping wet with another solo, it shocks the hairs on the back of your neck. (Guitar solos of the year. Any year. Juiciest guitar solos of all time.) Then he's huffing, "That's right, I'm the seventh son." Heh heh, Jack. You joker.

In the big, stupid world of rock, the authenticity of the artist's performance is in heavy popular and critical demand. Accordingly, any half-brained musician drawing inspiration from a century of Americana (and that's 99 percent of rock music) has got to concede the futility of the demand, let a bogus authenticity be his guide, and run with it all the way to the bank. It's plain as red 'n' white that the White Stripes' success owes largely to a fortunate collision of timing, way-inspired back story and dazzling visual concept, not to mention W.S.'s intuitive perception that our world craves lurid love stories involving the corruption of innocents. ("Are they brother and sister or lovers or both?") But without Jack & Meg's almost freakishly resonant musical gifts — their mastery comes in an authentic feel for American music — all their media savviness would've had them running on fumes by now. Four albums of persistently outrageous, inspired rock & roll can't be wrong.

THE WHITE STRIPES | Elephant | (V2)