Music

The White Stripes: White Blood Cells

Paul Bruno

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.


The White Stripes

White Blood Cells

Label: Sympathy for the Record Industry
US Release Date: 2001-07-03
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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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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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