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Best Album Ever

Best Album Ever: The White Stripes' Elephant

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Fri, Sep 20, 2013 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge TIMOTHY NORRIS
  • Timothy Norris
[Editor's Note: Best Album Ever is a column where critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they got into them.]

When I was a junior in high school in 2001, my boyfriend took me to see Almost Famous. As the credits rolled, he opined that it was "pretty good" -- I knew then things wouldn't work out between us.

To me, Almost Famous was the life I aspired to, full of great music, groupies, glamour, good vibes, and rock hedonism. I wanted to be a rock star; I wanted to be a Band-Aid, but mostly, like the film's hero William Miller, I wanted to be a music journalist.

But wait, was I too late? "It's over," the Lester Bangs character tells Miller, about rock music generally. "You got here just in time for the death rattle."

Fast forward to college where, naturally, the people who loved me encouraged me to study something different than journalism. I took their advice, as the internet was clearly killing both the music and journalism industries. But then, in 2003, The White Stripes' Elephant came out.

The fourth full length LP from the Detroit duo, Elephant had it all. Album opener "Seven Nation Army" was a rock and roll call to arms, with the sound then veering to raw garage noise with "Black Math," which is followed by one of Jack White's -- and music's -- greatest fuck you songs, "There's No Home For You Here Girl."

Next is a three song run of romance that starts with a badass cover of Burt Bacharach's "I Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (complete with Kate Moss pole dancing in the music video), followed by the plaintive "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart," and the heartsick "You've Got Her In Your Pocket." Meg White's spooky vocal cameo on "In the Cold Cold Night" sums up her role as the band's strange, silent member (and a very under-appreciated drummer.) The whole operation then gets back to rocking with the lusty blues ballad "Ball and Biscuit."

The band Stillwater from Almost Famous was based on Led Zeppelin, and like that group's III, Elephant's greatness was rooted in both balls to the wall rockers and gentle acoustic ballads. The album was visceral, angry, romantic, kooky, perfect. I loved it.

Jack and Meg were rock stars in the classical sense, eccentric with their peculiar red and white candy stripes outfits and, in the grand tradition of Dylan, unafraid to mess with the media. (They told journalists they were brother and sister, when in fact they were a divorced husband and wife.) They were exactly the kind of people I wanted to be writing about.

In the spring and fall of 2003 I listened to "The Hardest Button to Button" on repeat while drinking Mountain Dew in my dorm room. It was then that I said "fuck it." If rock was as alive and well as the opening riff of "Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine" suggested, then I was going to be a goddamn rock journalist.

click to enlarge I wrote this article for free and was thrilled to do so.
  • I wrote this article for free and was thrilled to do so.

I applied to the University of Wisconsin's journalism school and was promptly rejected. Undeterred, I began writing for the college newspaper, doing album reviews and covering shows by a then unknown band called My Morning Jacket, who played a shitty bar down the street from my apartment. I was getting free CDs and comped concert tickets. These were formative experiences. The thrill of seeing my name in print was even more exciting, a small sliver of the feeling, I imagined, a musician gets when performing for an adoring audience.

click to enlarge My ten year anniversary limited edition vinyl copy of Elephant - KATIE BAIN
  • Katie Bain
  • My ten year anniversary limited edition vinyl copy of Elephant
I applied to J-school again the following semester, and this time I got in.

Initially, classes were more about ledes and nut grafs than, say, how to look cool while hanging out backstage at the Troub, but I was on my way. By the time I was finishing up in 2005, the White Stripes were touring behind Get Behind Me Satan. I saw them play the Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee -- front row!

I wasn't covering it, but it made me feel that the Lester Bangs character's quote was wrong: It wasn't over, because holy shit did this show feel like the pinnacle of rock glory.

Dressed in gothic bolero, Jack and Meg ripped through thirty plus songs, including six tracks from Elephant. (I believe I had a better understanding of my womanhood after they did "Ball and Biscuit.") This was a band in its creative prime, arguably at the peak of its fame. I left covered in sweat.

The next time I saw them, at Bonnaroo in 2006 2007 while touring behind Icky Thump, I had just graduated from college with a journalism degree and had begun writing for the local newspaper. Maybe I'd missed the glory years when the industry was flush with cash and publications had cushy expense accounts for writers, but this was definitely the right line of work for me.

The White Stripes broke up on February 2, 2011. When I heard the news, I put on Elephant, my favorite album of all time, and played it loud. I was mourning, yes, and also paying homage to the band and album that had inspired me to write about music, a task that I was finally getting paid a living wage to do. A seven nation army couldn't hold me back.

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