Some of Us Really Like Icky Thump
Jack White and Status Ain't Hood, friends 4ever
God knows I have more baggage with Jack White than I do with practically any other working musician. His whole man-out-of-time schtick has always bugged the fuck out of me, the way he portrays himself as this anachronistic drifter who doesn't understand emails and TVs and cell-phones, who wouldn't mind totally abolishing the internet even if it had everything to do with his rise to fame. And then of course there was the time where I spent twelve-hour day in precarious fourteen-inch shoe-lifts so that I could make a two-second appearance in his band's video; I wrote about it the next day and apparently somehow diluted his carefully-cultivated air of mystery, whereupon he called me "some asshole actor" in an NME interview (only half-right!). But I still get all rapturous when I think about the drive back to my house after I bought White Blood Cells: windows down on a rare warm and sunny day in Syracuse, those first three or four utterly perfect songs absolutely rearranging my brain. I loved that album to pieces; it was probably the last time I've heard a young band pull off cliched-for-a-reason classic-rock moves with such supreme panache and confidence. Even though I really liked Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan, I couldn't help feeling a certain sense of dashed expectations. Fame and pressure, it seemed, had gone a long way toward evaporating their sense of starry-eyed playfulness, and even when they were having fun with big-rock stomp-snort, it felt like they were bracketing that fun in quotation marks (see: "Ball and Biscuit"). And so Icky Thump, for me, feels like a revaluation, like the rock-stardom leap I've been hoping they'd make since I first saw the "Fell in Love with a Girl" video on MTV. They sound like they're having fun again: making weird and sometimes deeply annoying noises, turning songs halfway into skits, pushing their self-imposed limitations as far as they'll go, but still remembering to write some fucking amazing songs. I was not expecting to hear a great album from the White Stripes at this late date, but that's exactly what Icky Thump is.
I sort of get what Nate Cavalieri was saying when, in the pages of this newspaper this week, he basically said that Icky Thump finds the band drawn into the fame echo-chamber, bereft of joy or direction. But "half-assed and half-hearted prog rock?" I don't know, dude. Icky Thump definitely has a lot of weird noises, and at least a few of those weird noises are pretty ill-advised. Jack has apparently bought some new effects-pedal that makes his guitar (or maybe his keyboard; they sound almost exactly the same sometimes) sound like a cat being strangled, and he lays that trebly shred-noise on way too thick sometimes. The unhinged distorto-shredding on the first-single title-track isn't particularly satisfying; there's a moment about 2:03 into the song where it sounds almost exactly like Lightning Bolt except with totally rudimentary drumming, which isn't a great look. I would've much preferred if they'd opened things up with a statement-of-intent like "Seven Nation Army," which is as perfect a marriage of arena-rock and disco as we've heard since Billy Squier's "The Stroke" or Ace Frehley's "New York Groove." But the White Stripes don't need that first single to establish themselves; they've already done it, and they can afford to fuck around a bit now. God knows I'd rather get a slice of day-glo noise from them than hear them go Nickelback or something. And after "Icky Thump," the album immediately slides into the deeply satisfying choogle-thud banger "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You're Told)," which, with a slightly different arrangement, could've been a Bob Seger greatest-hits track (that's a compliment). "You Don't Know What Love Is" is one of maybe eight songs on Icky Thump that keep the hooks coming in total classic-rock overload form: overbearing swagger, dickish lyrics, gargantuan riffs. "Conquest" is a Patti Page cover, but you'd never know it from the screaming fake-mariachi horns and riotous fuzzed-out guitars. "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" works in bagpipes and mandolins but somehow avoids sounding anything like a folk song. "Rag & Bone" is a neat little song-skit analogy about stealing old junk and turning it into gold, but the central riff is straight-up ZZ Top. "A Martyr for My Love for You" builds beautifully from a sinister simmer to a furiously cathartic chorus. I'm not as crazy about the pounding garage-rock songs where Jack really overdoses on guitar-noise, but even those songs seem necessary for pacing; they allow the band to space out the surging melodies for maximum impact. The one big misstep is "St. Andrew (The Battle is in the Air)," were the guitars and bagpipes and drums all totally ignore each other while Meg goes off on a creepy spoken-word rant. It's borderline unlistenable, and it seems to be there just to remind us how weird this band is, which, I don't know, maybe they needed to do.
I've got this theory that there are two basic ways that indie-rock bands can interpolate classic-rock tricks. There's the smirky and tongue-in-cheek thing where they'll pick up a few bits of bluesy choogle but use them with a sort of jokey distance, purposefully half-assing them; that's what Blitzen Trapper does on their new piece-of-shit album. And then there's the Meat Puppets thing: absorbing these sounds but marrying them to your own sensibilities, making adjustments for whatever drugs you're enjoying, twisting them around and making them weirder. The White Stripes are somewhere between an indie-rock band appropriating classic-rock sounds and an actual classic-rock band; they are, after all, headlining Madison Square Garden next month. And on Icky Thump, they really make their own innate weirdness work with their enormous crunch. Jack White's lyrics here are more impenetrable than they've ever been, and they're also better. "Little Cream Soda" seems to be a classic example of his all-consuming nostalgia for a time that probably never existed, but he delivers his lines in such a creepy, opaque yowl that they turn out fascinatingly evil and wrong. He never lets us know who he's turning into on "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" (his dad?) but when he accepts and celebrates that fate on the third verse, he makes it into a triumphant moment. On "Effect and Cause," he's practically an alien, totally flummoxed and frustrated at humans and their illogical forms of interaction. I wrote yesterday that Kanye West is the only guy working who takes pop stardom seriously. Well, Jack White apparently is the only guy working right now who takes rock stardom seriously, and that's a different thing. He's totally determined to drag all of us into his squirming, feverish brain-space, and he's willing to write some amazing songs if that's what it takes to get us there. Icky Thump makes his universe sound like a fun place to be.
Also, I did eventually get paid for being in that video. Just, you know, in case you were worried. I got to keep the suit, too.
Voice review: Nate Cavalieri on the White Stripes' Icky Thump Voice review: Keith Harris on the White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan Voice review: Chuck Eddy on the White Stripes' Elephant Voice review: Hilary Chute on the White Stripes' White Blood Cells
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