15 June 1999
The White Stripes
The White Stripes
Jack White saw the light, and it was blues. Lucky for us.
Before launching the White Stripes in the summer of ‘97, Jack White played drums for Detroit cowpunk outfit Goober & the Peas. Contrary to what one might assume, the transition to the White Stripes was not such a violent shift. The low-fi blues-garage-rock-and-roll bomb that the White Stripes served up shared a proudly stripped-down honesty with its cowpunk predecessor. You probably couldn’t get more fundamental, honest rock music if you gave a rattle to a naked, wailing baby.
“Jimmy the Exploder”, the opening track, sets the tone. Those familiar with ‘90s indie blues re-workings might immediately associate it with Jon Spencer, but then it quickly shifts to a reverb-heavy open chord riff reminiscent of “Gloria”, and all the while Meg White’s simple but competent percussion keeps a rocked-out tambourined time. A circumspect headbang becomes brisker, especially to Jack White’s war whoops and generally lilting vocals. This spare, catchy rocker fades with falsetto yelps. Wipe the sweat from your brow.
The lyrics share that patented simplicity with country and blues, early rock-and-roll, and pop in repetition and brevity. Take “Astro”: “Maybe Jasper does the astro / Maybe Jasper does the astro / Maybe Jasper does the astro, astro / Yeah”. Next verse: “Maybe Lilly does the astro… woah… eh”, and on for two more verses before the culmination of an honorary salute to one of their big influences: ” Maybe Tesla does the astro / Maybe Edison is AC/DC”. It’s a similar sequence for other songs on the album, such as “Little People”. “There’s a little girl who says, ‘bing, bing bomb.’ / Hello oh, oh… little boy with a spider in his hands… 25cents. Hello oh, oh”. The core is a little headbangable three chord riff. A guitar lets loose an intermittent background yawp like a seal in heat.
Compare that lyrical pattern to almost any traditional country, bluegrass, or blues, such as Son House’s “Country Farm”: “Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / They’ll sure put you down on the country farm”. The Hawaiian-tinged blues twang associated with bluesmen like Son House is again showcased on songs like “Suzy Lee”, though only appearing in pure stripped-down form for a couple of measures before it morphs into a hard rock riff, returning a few measures down the line. This is what the White Stripes do so well.
The album also featured two carefully selected covers: one of blues giant Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down”, the other Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee”. Both provide honorable twists on the originals. The first, though great in its own right, is perhaps a tad too peppy for the lyrics’ own good. But the second’s howling coyote vocals channel a desolation that surely rivals the original. There are also a couple of especially rock-heavy morsels. “The Big Three Killed My Baby” is practically an arena rock, Zeppelinesque number reduced to two musicians. Blast this song on the stereo or headphones and AC/DC can eat crow. It gets in the bloodstream like good tequila. Like that? Take a hit of “Slicker Drips”—what you would get if Dr. Frankenstein put his helmet on Flat Duo Jets, Hasil Adkins, and Iggy Pop (on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and hit the power switch.
This is the way it all began. The White Stripes’ fresh take on blues and rock-and-roll would destine them for the pantheon.
What came after? A media mystique—Jack and Meg’s simple variations on a red, white, and black self-presentation; the rumors or lies they generated about being siblings; the always lingering rumor of breakup; their iconic association with the Detroit garage rock revival. But ten years and six critically acclaimed studio albums later, The White Stripes still holds up as the most uncompromisingly stripped-down, honest, and arguably best album in their entire repertoire. Jayson Harsin
15 June 1999
The Art of Noise
The Seduction of Claude Debussy
On paper, The Seduction of Claude Debussy sounds like an inevitably disastrous collision of neo-classical pretension and that most troublesome of 20th century progressive art forms, the concept album. This is, however, the Art of Noise, and as such, The Seduction of Claude Debussy is an improbable success. It’s an acquired taste, and for listeners who can’t open up to the idea of having operatic vocals, jungle rhythms, and, um, Rakim on the same release, it’s a lost avenue. But for the willing, the Art of Noise prove, as always, their ability to immerse, challenge, and rewards listeners. That this disc remains an overlooked and underrated chapter of the Art of Noise’s history is shame, and can be attributed mostly to the fact that, unlike the Art of Noise’s ‘80s output, it didn’t reinvent the wheel with its production techniques.
“Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)”, perhaps the finest track on the release, starts things off with a maximal bang, throwing Debussy’s lovely, sparse piano compositions against snare rushes, string samples, opera vocals, and narration from actor John Hurt. Debussy, Hurt climactically explains, was a key figure in the genesis of the modern music period. It’s only appropriate, then, that the Art of Noise celebrate the dawning of a new century with an aural pastiche of various musical forms from the previous ones. Once again, suspension of disbelief is critical: it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Hurt’s suggestion that the listener “imagine Debussy being born again”, but it’s a genuine plea. And, more importantly, Debussy is a painfully sincere tribute to its namesake and his spirit of progression and aesthetic ear.
The odd man out in the cast is Rakim, and it is initially odd to hear him rap about Baudelaire and being “aerodynamic in the evening air”. But if there’s one thing the Art of Noise—superproducer Trevor Horn, astute critic Paul Morley, and musician Anne Dudley—know, it’s how to make improbably brilliant art that refracts the culture of the moment. This is also the only flaw that’s revealed itself since Debussy was first issued: like most trends in electronic music, the drum-n-bass beats that sounded so much like the far-off future in the ‘90s now sound like, well, the ‘90s. At the same time, this clear datedness contributes to The Seduction of Claude Debussy as a reflective look back at the close of a century, merging the avant-garde of its beginning with that of its close. David Abravanel