Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be

Jack and Meg Find a Little Place to Fight 'Em Off

Success has made a failure of our home. Loretta Lynn said that; Elvis Costello covered it once. (Sometime later, somebody changed the words to "the mo money we come across, the mo problems we see.") Costello also covered "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" once. As do, on their new Elephantalbum, the White Stripes—who like Loretta Lynn so much they dedicated their previous album to her, and are bringing her to Hammerstein Ballroom this Saturday.

The White Stripes open Elephant with a really paranoid song—paranoid about groupies, or imitators, or sycophants. Or somebody. "I'm gonna fight 'em off . . . They're gonna rip it off." Slow chords, blues notes, muffled voice eventually climbing in pitch. Ominous sound, tense and bothered. Slowed-down Little Richard in the chorus. Words about how a seven-nation army, which is to say a nation of millions, couldn't hold Jack White back. He wants to escape from fame, run away to Wichita. (Same state as Loretta's beloved Topeka, where one is a toddlin', one is a crawlin', and one's on the way.) A corny old travails-of-stardom song. It's the radio single right now, and it doesn't say what the seven nations are. Which seems rather sneaky, given the War With No Allies.

Anyway, now that the White Stripes are in a bigger room, they might not know what to do, and they might have to think of how they got started, sitting in their little room. So in "Seven Nation Army," and later in "The Hardest Button to Button," they deal with it. The latter's a boogie, a very antisocial one. And a marriage-rocker to boot—everything the White Stripes do best. "Now we're a family/And we're alright now/We got money and a little place to fight now." The room gets bigger. "It was 1981/We named him Baby/He had a toothache/He started crying/It sounded like an earthquake."

Two's a crowd.
Photo courtesy of Girlie Action
Two's a crowd.

It's gotta start right in your own backyard. Dion DiMucci said that, in a song about losing his kids and wife to drink and drugs. And the White Stripes, Detroit domestics that they deep-down are, sing about backyards a lot. "The Hardest Button to Button" and "Little Acorns," which follows it on Elephant, are more vacant-lot ecology, more dead leaves and dirty ground to help us look at all the bugs we found. But when the acorn song opens with a moral fable about a squirrel saving up nuts for winter, I'm thinking it's about the Stripes preparing for their future. Which they should.

Besides being an out-of-left-field smash (which thus suggests that Clear Channel's war-mongering assholes might not be as monolithic as doomsayers say) and birthing some of history's shortest AOR hits, 2001's White Blood Cellswas thematically of a piece, distinguished by Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be's best songwriting ever, much of it conceivably autobiographical. Which is to say it was, in some ways, a classic D-I-V-O-R-C-E LP in the Fleetwood Mac/X/Human Switchboard/Richard and Linda Thompson/Womack and Womack tradition. You get married in a big cathedral by a priest and if I'm the man you love the most you can say "I do" at least, but it's getting harder to find a gentleman to stimulate devotion. I read it all as Jack being more committed to the union forever and Meg not being able to help how a woman feels when the tingle becomes a chill. But art can lie, of course.

For instance: More and more, I'm convinced Jack is basically a one-man band. Meg, as wonderful a person as she seems to be, is an entirely replaceable drummer—musically, at least, if not conceptually. On Elephant, she fills in space competently enough when the guitar stops, but otherwise I forget she's even there. Though then again, I never understood why people make a big deal about Dave Grohl or Janet Weiss (neither of whom can swing a 16th note to save their lives), so maybe my standards are too high. But there are definitely garage-revival bands out there who dance like White Stripes don't—a half-dozen minimum in Detroit alone, and that's not even counting Jack's pals Electric Six covering Roxy Music's "Street Life" at the Bowery Ballroom last week. Better yet, play any six Elephantsongs next to the half-dozen that end ZZ Top's Mescalero, which hits the stores this week, and tell me which band's got the funk. (Hint: The one with the bass player.) All of which, may I remind you, matters, since garage rock is about how nobody can do the shingaling like I do as much as it's about how sometimes good guys don't wear white. Thing is, Meg looks so cool. And it's beyond cool that my 13-year-old drummer daughter Cordelia wears pigtails like her sometimes, and has the White Stripes' photo framed in her room. But especially given how much White Stripes sound more like Led Zeppelin than like anybody else, Meg's got no brontosaur Bonham stomp at all. And not much propulsive Moe Tucker pulse, either. And when her voice sneaks out of a couple Elephant tracks, it's even blanker than her drums and her facial expressions. Somehow, across the board, she's figured out how to come off charmingly blank, which is to her credit. But mostly what her musical anonymity proves is that Jack White is one heckuva rhythm guitarist. And singer, too.

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