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The White Stripes

White Blood Cells

(Sympathy for the Record Industry; US: 3 Jul 2001)

In many ways, indie rock is like that other time-consuming, intermittently rewarding activity of one’s 20s: dating. Bands can be like lovers. Some bands you’ll be infatuated with for a short period. You listen to them constantly, but they slowly fade away when you realize there’s just not that much there. (“The sex was great, then we had to have a conversation”.) Others may bedazzle you with their idiosyncrasies (“He’s not like anyone I’ve ever met”), until those very same qualities start to irritate. (“Yeah, he’s a fucking weirdo”) There are some artists, however, who, like a great lover, please you time and time again. Album after album they continue to surprise you, delighting you emotionally, physically, and spiritually, their existence making your existence much, much richer.

After their album DeStijl was embraced by the indie rock hipster mafia (the new album’s artwork cleverly lampoons the attention the band received), it was hard to tell what kind of relationship one would have with the White Stripes in the long term. Sure, the record was great but were they worth the hype? Would they deliver on their promise or disappoint and vanish into oblivion? After hearing their latest offering, White Blood Cells, you might want to consider taking them home to meet mom.

The first thing that separates the White Stripes from the redundant, boring wank that passes for adventurous music these days is that the White Stripes can actually, you know, rock. And not only can they rock but they can rock hard and nasty. (Hey, rock ‘n’ roll is a euphemism for “fucking”, in case you forgot.) On the most superficial level, one could categorize the White Stripes as a punk/blues hybrid. Other artists have seen the potential of merging these two styles(which are, after all, two of the most raw, cathartic rock-related genres) and a few have produced some interesting music: the ultra-hip, trash-worshipping bombast of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the lo-fi, outsider blues of the Bassholes, and the Robert-Johnson-by-way-of-Johnny-Thunders punk of the Gun Club. Unfortunately, most of the bands in this tiny subgenre are fairly derivative and largely interchangeable. The White Stripes, however, offer much more in the way of variety (which is the spice of life, you know) than nearly all other bands inhabiting the garage/punk ghetto.

In Jack White (not to be confused with the equally but differently talented Jack Black), the band has an excellent singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer capable of shifting styles while retaining general cohesiveness and without seeming like pointless genre hopping. In other words, not every song on White Blood Cells sounds the same, but they all sound like the White Stripes, a major accomplishment for any band. It’s an especially noteworthy accomplishment when the band’s sound is as bare boned as the White Stripes’, their arrangements strictly based on vocals/guitar/drums (no bass) with occasional keyboards.

Opening with the incredible, melodic-to-crunching blues of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, White Blood Cells jumps around from slightly countrified ditties (“Now Mary”, the deliriously catchy “Hotel Yorba”) to Sabbath-like riffing (“Expecting”, “Aluminum”) to quiet minimal ballads (“We’re Going to be Friends”, “This Protector”). If DeStijl‘s opener “You’re Pretty Good Looking” was the best Kinks song since 1973, then the new album’s “Fell in Love with a Girl” gets my vote for best punk song of 2001 (though it’s an admittedly narrow field). Best of all are the songs that synthesize the previously mentioned elements into something truly special (the aforementioned “Dead Leaves”, “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentlemen”, “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known”, “Offend in Every Way”, “I Can’t Wait”). Most of these 16 songs would be great regardless of context, but White Blood Cells is smartly sequenced. As a result the album unfolds like a great book (or, for that matter, a great love making session), each song preparing the listener for the next.

This fine, fine album (quite possibly the finest of year) signals that the White Stripes have arrived. Hype or no hype, this is a band of significance and will hopefully be a source of enormous pleasure for years to come. You’d feel mighty fine waking up with them laying on your pillow next to you.

Stay tuned, when next time, I’ll thoroughly examine the relationship between indie rock and beer consumption. Elliot Smith is to Red Stripe as Guided By Voices is to Pabst BlueRibbon? Hmmm….

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