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Sticky, icky Goodness

{mosimage}Oh, thank God. The new White Stripes album is good. The new White Stripes album is good, and all’s right with the world. It’s been a strange few years for them, and for their fans, but I’m happy to report that the kids are out of bed and full of jellybeans.

This one could be a barnburner too. That would be just fine. It feels better when the Stripes have a good, new record out: That’s how it should always be. And if the record industry were at its creative peak, as it was in the late ’60s, these two would probably be cranking out two 30-minute albums per year, and they’d be loving it. And so would fans. (Like every other signed, almost-signed or recently signed band, the Stripes had some record-label troubles over the past little bit. They’ve recently landed at Warners, and so far so good. Let’s hope the next one doesn’t take two years.)

You see, the White Stripes may have left Detroit, but they’re still a Rust Belt band who know the value of hard work, and aren’t afraid of it. Icky Thump has that feel to it, in a good way: They punch in, play the songs hard and good, then punch out. There’s precious little preciousness here, which is an improvement over 2005’s marimba- and grief-addled Get Behind Me Satan (the Tori Amos of White Stripes albums — you know, an acquired taste I never managed to acquire, though it sold like crazy and won a Grammy).

Icky Thump, like its title, is short, dirty — and most rocking. Red (and White) Alert: The guitars are back — specifically (I could swear) the red Airline and that hollow-body one Jack White uses for his bottleneck slide. There are more in there too — just a whole hell of a lot of guitars creating a bountiful range of sounds: thick, distorted and muddy; thick, distorted and piercing; sliding, evil, serpentlike; clear and finger-plucked acoustic; bluesy, country, metallish, folky. Whatever you want. Sometimes, the riffs and solos are better than the choruses they play off. (Which would be one criticism, actually: I could use more sing-along hooks to match the many opportunities for air guitar.) And let me be the first to say, the chugging (heart) attack of “Little Cream Soda” is less speed metal than “Barracuda.” (I know, I know: “Barracuda” is in itself a Zeppelin rip-off, but it’s still pretty badass.) “Little Cream Soda” — which was apparently created live, on tour — is probably the coolest song on the album, actually. Though I do enjoy “Rag and Bone,” a super-gimmicky ditty about their fondness for making things out of other people’s castoffs (and yeah, okay, it’s precious as shit, but it works). For a band that invented a unique sound by borrowing shamelessly from so many, at least it’s honest.

Funny thing — just a few weeks ago, I was bracing for disappointment. I’m used to being challenged by the White Stripes: At their best, they’re like a strong wind that blows open a stuck window in my mind from time to time. Unfortunately, the lead single, “Icky Thump,” didn’t do that. It didn’t provide that perfect moment of pure discovery, momentary awkwardness, and then deep rightness I felt with 2001’s White Blood Cells. But after spending some QT with the album, I see now that I was missing the point.

It’s obvious that Icky Thump isn’t as bracingly groundbreaking as White Blood Cells (or The White Stripes, or De Stijl). But it’s also obvious that that’s okay. You see, aesthetically, if not commercially, the White Stripes were an instant classic from the start — and like all instant classics, they’re kind of inherently original, and perennially special. No need to force it. You can only invent peppermint candy once. After that, the main thing is to enjoy it while you got it. Christmas won’t last forever.

Icky Thump does exactly what it needs to do: It reaffirms everything this band is, and stands for — without ever feeling lazy, or even just pooped. I’d call this a return to form (after Jack White’s work with Loretta Lynne and the Raconteurs, and Get Behind Me Satan), but that feels a little mean. So let’s just call this vintage White Stripes, and thank the Lord for small gifts. The Stripes?are not repeating themselves, and they’re not chasing themselves — nor are they desperately trying to reinvent themselves. They are themselves, like it was no big thing. In fact, I’d wager this is the White Stripes’ least self-conscious record — ever. (I’m trying not to use the word mature, though the band is nearly 10 years old now, as that implies a softening about the belly and tushy.) If you’ve ever seen them live, or had the pleasure to hear any of their Peel Sessions or other live material, then maybe you know what I mean: On Icky Thump, they’ve finally bridged the gap between the manic, crazy-visceral abandon of their live show and the thoughtful craft of their studio output. (It makes you wish John Peel, the great BBC DJ who championed them, were alive to hear it. He would be so proud.)

What the White Stripes do, at their best, is by its very nature extraordinary, and difficult, and not to be taken for granted. In fact, as rockers determined to bring a sense of style and whimsy back to our dreary popular culture, they’re more valuable than ever. (See our coverage of their ingenious record launch at “Icky Thump Records” — formerly Tower — on Sunset.) It’s all but impossible these days for rock stars to maintain real style or whimsy. (It makes me think of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” lyric “It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out . . .” or even White’s line on White Blood Cells, “I’m finding it harder to be a gentleman every day/All the manners that I’ve been taught have slowly died away . . .”)

The ballad “A Martyr for My Love for You” feels like a classic White Stripes song, with its intimate acoustic verses and freak-out electrified interludes; and the odd friction from that seething organ beneath it all, like some antique boiler in the basement that might blow at any moment. And then, of course, there are those lyrics: Jack’s narrator is a dark man, incapable of good love (“I could stay a while/But sooner or later/I’ll break your smile . . .”). It’s almost always been like that in White’s lyrics — but they may be more romantically hopeless than ever. (Oddly, his cover of the Patti Page number “Conquest” — in which an ingénue tames a lady-killer — may be the most optimistic love story on the album.) Which is fine. It’s simply one of the things you have to accept about the White Stripes in order to enjoy what they offer. Jack White chooses to play a slightly wicked, narcissistic figure, and there’s obviously room for that archetype in rock & roll! He’s certainly not your go-to guy for any real romantic inspiration, though: There’s nothing here to compare to the McCartney- and Dylan-inspired wise innocence of “We’re Going to Be Friends,” for example, or the lovestruck discovery of “Sugar Never Tasted So Good.” (Maybe White should consult his Cole Porter songbook again.)

But if you can accept that, and accept that they’re not going to reinvent the wheel on every album, you will discover much to cherish. And give them credit for clarity and candor: The White Stripes always said they were going to be limited, structurally and sonically. That’s essential to their identity, and even their creative process. What’s amazing is that they’ve actually managed, against all odds and despite wild success, to defy the scenario outlined in their song “Little Room” (off White Blood Cells), in which the narrator frets that to do something great, a bigger room might be required. The trouble with bigger rooms, as he sees it, is that they’re easy to get lost in.

The Stripes have spent some time in the “bigger room,” and since gotten back inside the “little room” they began in. And it turns out, it’s really not so very little after all. There’s room in there for you, and for me. So I think I’ll hang out with them there, in that little room, for a little while. They’re working on something good.

Also read Ryan Ward's review of the Tower Records concert and Timothy Norris' photos from the show.


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