01 September 2010

The White Stripes

Most music criticism employs an absurd amount of comparison. So band X is "picking up the Minutemen math-punk thread" but with "screaming MC5 guitars," but can also sound "like a Krautrock Soft Machine" or even "Devendra Banhart piloting Little Feat." (From an actual review.) I'm not going to pretend I'll avoid this. That would be a practical impossibility, because comparison is vital to description. But I want here to start with a band that, for me, is a rock reference point so pure it almost abolishes prior art.

I first heard the White Stripes about five years ago, four albums into their career. I was just getting back into rock after a hiatus. I'd never gotten past the death of grunge or seriously listened to any rock post-Soundgarden. And being old, I didn't have friends exposing me to anything new. I don't recall how I even came across the White Stripes, but I put on their first album, and when it started into "Jimmy the Exploder," I felt like I was just hearing rock 'n roll for the first time. But that sounds quaint. Let me rephrase: It slagged my brain and I've never recovered.

The White Stripes - Jimmy the Exploder

The first two White Stripes albums (The White Stripes and De Stijl) sound like some impossibly successful sound lab experiment to reduce rock to its purest essence. Not in the sense of purely formulaic—it's actually really quirky—but pure in its effects. Those albums communicate to me the raw electricity that rock should communicate. The first one is certainly the purest, and Jack White apparently thinks as much, too: "I still feel we've never topped our first album. It's the most raw, the most powerful, and the most Detroit-sounding record we've made." Subsequent albums are good, but on the whole, decreasingly good. The problem is you can't get purer than pure.

The White Stripes is a two-piece drum and guitar duo, Jack and Meg White. (Apparently once married, though they deny it.) Meg pounds out time on her large tom with ferocious concentration, and Jack lays down raw guitar and vocals over the top. Jack White's influences are Dylan, the Stones, punk, country, and who knows what else, but he's first of all a blues-rock guitarist. Quoth Jack, "I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't love Led Zeppelin." But he's also a devotee of original Delta and Detroit blues, especially Son House, whom he covers with "Death Letter" (on De Stijl), the most electrifying blues track I've ever heard.

I think Jack White is a musical genius. That means at his best there is none better, but also that he is highly restless and erratic. His more recent ensemble experiments with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather are not especially good. The Raconteurs made a lot of sense, really. Combine Jack White with the superb Greenhornes and you should have jam on toast. But the sum is clearly not equal to its parts.

The White Stripes are often called "garage rock" because of their raw, lo-fi sound, and they became the engine of a garage rock revival centered on Detroit. But I'd call them primal rock, what rock sounds like when it's all talent and instinct and energy, and no production. A lot of rock bands go for that sound, of course, but few succeed. There is no formula here, just eccentric genius. That rare spark was brilliantly visualized by an equally eccentric genius, French director Michel Gondry, who directed the video for "Hardest Button to Button." Best. Video. Ever. (Though you may need Dramamine.)

Bonus content: The Making of.

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