Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be

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

In "Little Acorns," he gives us a huge downbound guitar stutter, and vocal hiccups like if Herman's Hermits covered "D'Yer Mak'er." He's got this high, glammy vibrato, almost comical—intentionally tweedledee frilly and fey. (And has anybody noticed his increasing visual resemblance to Michael Jackson? OK, never mind.) So maybe "Black Math" on Elephant is a black mass, lisped. Unless it's math-rock gone blues. Killer divebomb fuzztone repetition, faster and faster, deeper and deeper, more and more pissed; Jack's learned over the course of four albums how to be heavy without being sluggish. He's developed this unusual knack for getting an extremely grimy slide sound into an extremely pretty pop song, for letting thick gangliations coalesce into melody, for taking cool explorations within a totally tight framework, for making his six-string ring like Salvation Army horns. He stated his aesthetic philosophy early on: "Crumble crumble/The bag is brown/Rip up the paper/To hear a sound/Pick up the pieces/Off the ground." His guitar style comes out of Jeff Beck, Roger McGuinn, Tom Verlaine, Neil Young, Angus Young. So whippersnappers who compare his band to Violent Femmes make no more sense than ones who say he's Jon Spencer.

Like all great garage-rock bands, White Stripes are omnivorous in their cover versions: Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan ("One More Cup of Coffee," a couple years before Robert Plant covered it—on an Upper Peninsula road trip last summer, my kids got sick of me playing both versions in the car), Dolly Parton, the Kinks, the Premiers' "Farmer John," the Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head," Captain Beefheart's "Ashtray Heart," Robert Johnson via the Stones, now Dionne Warwick. On Elephant, "Hyptonize" might be my favorite song just 'cause it's the best dance track, not to mention a blatant Xerox of some famously distorted '60s proto-punk pebble if not nugget, though damned if I can figure out which one. And like any good garage album, Elephant has more than its fair share of it-ain't-me-you're-looking-for-babe don't-hang-around-'cause-two's-a-crowd flare-ups: "The Air Near My Fingers," whose riff is pure "Wild Thing"/"More Than a Feeling"/"Smells Like Teen Spirit"; the even meaner "There's No Home for You Here," Jack in his verbosely faux-proper Ray Davies mode: "I'm only waiting for the proper time to tell you that it's impossible to get along with you." Massed, churchy chorus; muffled, maybe backward hook hinting at psychedelia like any antsy suburban hoodlums circa 1966. Waking up for breakfast, taking pictures, throwing garbage, breaking bottles, lighting matches: mental refuse of a pointless relationship.

By now, you got your white stripes on black zebras, your black stripes on white zebras, your black and white stripes on invisible zebras, and your invisible stripes on black and white zebras, and how can you tell the difference? Which is to say it just might be pointless to make qualitative distinctions between White Stripes albums—their 1999 debut, where Jack was still a bit too obsessed with the Anthology of American Folk Music, and from back when he hadn't quite figured out yet how to make his blues pop enough, is barely a notch below the later three, which are all too close to call. Like all those TRL teens, I assume White Blood Cells will always be my first pick because it's the first one I ever heard. But all the hardcore garage hipsters I know who heard De Stijl first prefer that one. And in the long run Elephant may be no different.

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


The White Stripes

Certain facets are missed on the new one, though. The second side (on the vinyl version, sent to critics back in February to thwart downloads, which didn't work) is the dullest sequence they've put together since tracks five through 11 on their debut. There's nothing as dark as the 300 people living out in West Virginia who ended White Blood Cells (and who always made me think of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown"), and nothing as beautiful as the jousting-faire folk-rock of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" or "The Same Boy You've Always Known," and no stompin'-our-feet-on-the-wooden-boards barn-dance beats worthy of "Hotel Yorba." Could use more Dock Boggs country-blues dirt, too, about how your Southern can is mine in the mornin' and when I find you mama you'll feel my hand (and maybe lose your heart on the burning sand) and if I catch you in the heart of town gonna make you moan like a graveyard hound. I mean, Jack's sounding increasingly precious in interviews, spouting confused aesthetic theories that he'd stated more succinctly way back when he named De Stijl after an art movement built on straight lines and primary colors. And now he's babbling about the return of the gentleman and sweetheart like he's Beck's little Delta brother. But fact is, some of his sexiest songs have never been gentlemanly at all—and what most saves Elephant from drowning in impending professionalism isn't good manners, it's hostile boogies like "Ball and Biscuit": very deliberate, all evil boll-weevil eight-bar George Thorogood have-love-will-travel backdoor-man jellyroll prowess, with ripping Crazy Horse headbangs thrusting deep inside. "Let's have a bawwwl, girl, and take our sweet little time about it." Read about him in the paper, or just ask your girlfriends, 'cause they already know. Not as heavy a heffalump stampede as Mastodon or Mammoth Volume, maybe, but at least as heavy as Black Keys.

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