The White Stripes
ith a band like the White Stripes, I often feel like we should lower our word minimum at Stylus. “This is a White Stripes record.” Episode X, Season Y. Perhaps a post-script: “Oh, and it’s not like Get Behind Me Satan. You’ll actually like this one.” I mean, eight years into their career, the Stripes are a commoditized talent. You know that Miller High Life ad where the beer truck driver saves the beer from the wrong kind of patron? That could have been Satan. Icky Thump should play well anywhere.
But, given that its predecessor wound up alienating a fair number of the band’s supporters for its eccentricity, a brief look back seems in order. Despite its playful vibe and expansive musicianship, it’s hard to believe 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan actually brought anyone new to the band’s garage-brand. In pop terms, perhaps Satan’s closest cousin came two years late. It was like Björk’s Volta in that it required a sort of inattentive focus before it let itself loose, like a brush animal that moves only when it senses you’ve stopped seeing what’s right in front of you. Both were accused of lacking “songs,” and that’s about half-right—they weren’t really White StripesTM or BjörkTM songs. They were each too sly with their melodies given expectations. Too many vagabond trails and open spaces—Bjork’s too foggy and Jack’s too arid. And more than that, Jack was caught in one of those thorny artist’s quandaries: Two-week holiday where I might get my wallet stolen? Or stay home and get drunk again in those same places where I still feel so warm?
Satan was about as polarizing as you’d expect from an album that found such a reliable act trying to confront the need for creative advance. I suspect those left cold by Satan will find Icky Thump a welcome reheating. Recorded in three weeks in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, Icky Thump is the Stripes’ first record on a major label. But you wouldn’t really know it. Gone are the marimbas, the ethnic oddities, and all the piano-musings. No more flypaper poses in sweaty nights.
Instead, Jack and Meg are again mining garage blues revivalism and the brief electric storms of the De Stijl-Elephant trio. It’s that old steady formula we once mistook for shtick—drums and guitar. “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)” is a fond look back at “We’re Going to Be Friends”’s fond look back—the kind of simple, almost artlessly poignant ballad I wasn’t sure we’d ever hear from White again, and “A Martyr for My Love for You” might be a half-stripped update of “Apple Blossom” now acid-brown and rotten, as Jack’s acoustic guitar and shy synth tones light out his lonesome memory waltz. “300 MPH Torrential Outpoor Blues” is White doing his best “Subterranean Homesick” impression, a ramshackle guitar and lopsided beat set in time to his verbal whirlwind.
But it’s when they’re skinnin’ their knees on all that concrete and blacktop that you really see Meg and Jack returning to the new-Americana they mastered a few years ago. “Bone Broke” is a gruff burst of power-rock riffs and Jack shrieking on the oldest of blues themes (I ain’t got no fucking money); “Little Cream Soda”’s guitar refrains nod to the closet REM space of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”; “Rag and Bone“ finds Jack and Meg playing quid pro quo at the garage sale in a rugged jump-along squall, one of the most perplexing and personable songs they’ve ever recorded; and then comes the unrepentant stomp of “Catch Hell Blues,” “Ball and Biscuit” by way of “The Lemon Song.”
Of course, on Icky, Jack still knows how to perk up the Stripes’ two-tone outfitting with small tones of detail. “Conquest,” a Corky Robbins cover, features Mexican trumpeter Regulo Aldama in a crunchy mariachi waltz, and lead single “Icky Thump” is White’s slash at lite-prog with its heavily processed guitar noodling. On companion pieces “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrews (This Battle Is in the Air),” White gets a little soggy over bagpipes and spoken-word horseshit. But on Satan, these new tastes for what was rapidly becoming a very staid palette for White formed the base of the album’s progress—and made it such a welcome respite to those who enjoyed it. Here, given the throwback nature of Icky, they feel like concessions to oddity. They sound like White at play as George Webber, refusing to go all the way home again for fear his fans and former friends will recognize how permanently they’ve framed themselves in his “Hotel Yorba.”
Perhaps that’s what I was getting at earlier. Icky Thump is the White Stripes playing the White Stripes again, just two years after playing this mythic duo some of us liked without every really recognizing. People wanted