My best friend, Lindsey, was obsessed with “Jolene” as a child and used to sneak drawing pictures of Jolene in class with a fellow nine-year-old. They were fascinated by what Jolene could possibly have looked like if she could take the indubitably foxy Dolly Parton’s man for sport. Well, what about if Jolene were up against 25-year-old singer-guitarist-pianist Jack White, who sings to her, as Dolly does, “Please don’t take my man”? Interesting: It’s not as if the White Stripes never change the lyrics in the songs they cover. In their rollicking “Lord, Send Me an Angel,” from Blind Willie McTell, Willie’s “Macon brown” lady becomes a special shade of “Detroit brown.” (Notable too is the magnificently titled McTell tune “Your Southern Can Is Mine,” the closing track on last year’s De Stijl; the band also does songs by Son House, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and even Marlene Dietrich.)
At the sold-out Bowery Ballroom a few weeks back, the White Stripes just looked like two people clowning around—Jack kept jumping up and down, but not in an orchestrated “badass” way, and Meg White was totally phlegmatic on drums, sleepy eyed and chilling as though some dude really did recruit his older sister to play when his best friend got the clap. The story goes that Meg, with no prior experience, literally stumbled into playing drums one day when Jack was practicing in their attic. And De Stijl actually was cut in their living room in southwestern Detroit.
Jack reportedly grew up the seventh son in a Catholic family of 10, Meg’s junior by nine months, which sounds sort of romantically false. The band does however thank God and Family before anybody else on every LP. (White Blood Cells‘ heavy opener, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” sums up the big picture with its quavery conclusion about the Holy Ghost.) But these pale, brown-haired “Candy Cane Children” (the name of an early single on a Christmas-themed comp) are psychologically siblings at least. They’ve never had a set list; they just follow each other. Meg, who has a preternaturally adorable, doughy, round li’l button of a face, performs makeup-less and barefoot, and she’s always biting her lip while smiling at Jack. Sometimes he comes over to the drumkit and sings to her. And she doesn’t say a single word.
The band always dons white and red onstage; Jack sometimes just wears a white T-shirt with “Blind Willie McTell” scrawled in red marker. He’s less cute in person than in pictures, but that non-cuteness makes him more cute, and he always wears a necklace made from machinery—it’s right there on the cover of White Blood Cells, and it says “Property of the Ford Motor Company.” Speaking of which, the Stripes’ furious, screeching 1999 single “The Big Three Killed My Baby” is their best non-pretty song. “I just can’t stand cars,” Jack, a former upholsterer, elucidates. “I think they are the worst money pits and killing machines of all time.”
There’s an awesome interview with Jack on the Internet, by a five-year-old Detroit boy named Lucas, who listens to the White Stripes in the car with his mom and thinks that Jack White is 10 years old. (I would too if I didn’t know better, listening to “We’re Going to Be Friends”—the sheerest, kindest, simplest melody on White Blood Cells—with its joyful lists including “numbers, letters, learn to spell/nouns and books and show and tell.”) Lucas examines issues like “What color is the schoolbus in the song ‘Sister, Do You Know My Name?’ ” The answer is blue. (Re the dominance of peppermint-themed colors, “Why are you mad at the color blue?”) Lucas also wants to know why White Blood Cells has such a crazy name and why “are those shadow people bothering you on the front cover?” Jack: “The shadow-people might be bacteria coming at us and Meg and I are the white blood cells. Or maybe it means white blood ‘sells‘ and the bacteria are media and music lovers.” And referring to the line “pretty tough to think about the beginning of December” in my favorite new song, “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known,” Lucas also asks Jack, like, what’s wrong with December? Because, y’know, December is when Christmas is!
“The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” has this sort of not fakely presented falsetto, like serious New Kids on the Block, but less tinny, with more shimmering bravura. Or maybe it’s Tommy James and the Shondells: “We’re laying down again/on a blanket in the clover,” and you just know how crimson the blanket is. I think we’re alone now, and the simple drumming keeps fabulously fundamental, crashing time, like it’s your heart beating in mildly terrifying exhilaration when that ostensible sweet thing’s about to do everything. (Jack compares Meg’s simple style to Moe Tucker’s. “You can get a regular drummer any day of the week.”)
Jack’s voice can be very pretty, in an obsessive, cracking way; its textured edginess is the opposite of an acquired taste. When he sings really high, it’s freaky, fun, passionate. He himself admits, “It’s a lot more boring when I sing low than high, a lot less expressive.” But despite his maybe-we’ll-fuck teenagerness, the mood on White Blood Cells isn’t pervy. And it’s not awesomely angry, either. It’s broody.
In fact, the Stripes do broody better than I’ve ever heard it: broody like Zep, but also broody like Loretta Lynn (to whom they dedicate White Blood Cells). Their genre is punk blues, but it doesn’t stop there—despite its lack of covers, bass, slide guitar, and drum solos, the new album is wildly eclectic, with a bigger, more obvious country influence than before. It’s got great piano: The gorgeous, bare, two-minute closing track, “This Protector,” has an almost elegiac elegance and innocence. And the thunderously determined piano refrain of “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman,” I’m told, helps make it the album’s most boner-worthy number.
“I like stuff like ’40s piano music and Broadway tunes. I also like the Stooges and that kind of rock’n’roll,” Jack explains. “And as much as I can, I mix them together.” Garage punk needs songwriting skills, and vice versa. Take the barn-burning but un-bloated standout “Hotel Yorba”—a bouncy acoustic narrative with a begging-you-to-sing-along chorus (involving counting! I haven’t been this excited since Gloria Estefan’s “1-2-3”!). In a quiet interlude, Jack proposes, “Let’s get married in a big cathedral by a priest,” Meg’s childlike beats providing serene anticipation.
“All this stuff with raunchiness and swearing and talking about naked girls and all that, I’m really turned off by that kind of stuff—that’s getting really old,” Jack says. (Jon Spencer was skulking around the bar at the Bowery show, skinny and lame compared to Jack.) In fact, all of White Blood Cells is sweet on and toward the ladies, while compromising none of the guitar kick (guitar kick without big-fat-dick ethos) that attracts straight men to Jack White. The songs about marriage crack me up—and there are a ton of them. “The Union Forever” disclaims love’s selfish incarnations almost entirely in exact lines from Citizen Kane (in case you thought the “I’m not interested in oil wells and real estate” part was Jack’s own declaration of principles). And when White Blood Cells‘ lyrics are ’60s-boyfriend pissy, as in the Sonics-rocking “I Can’t Wait” (“who do you think you’re messing with, girl?”), they have last lines like “I wish this house felt like a home” instead of “Satan’s gonna kick your ass.”
Jack, I think, is a feminist. He thrillingly defends his bitchy baby’s “heart of stone” in De Stijl‘s mournfully angry “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise,” matter-of-factly addressing some clamoring pussies as follows: “Can’t you people just leave her alone? . . . The quivers of her bones below are the signs of a girl alone.” (Compare this to Zep’s whiny and lustful pronouncement about how the “soul of a woman was created below.”) And the infectious “You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl)” is like the Stones’ “Stupid Girl” chewed up and spit out rad—with pro-lady lyrics lurking beneath the surface.
Jack is also a Luddite of sorts, complaining to Spin.com, “Why do we have to buy a cell phone, you know what I mean? A lot of that stuff upsets me.” Clearly a man after my own heart; too bad he has a red-haired (duh!) girlfriend, also in a Detroit band. And yeah, he’s rabid about his hometown. Check out the Jack-produced Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit (choice tracks: “I’m Through With White Girls” by former Gorie Mick Collins’s new band, the Dirtbombs, and the fuzzy, funny “Decal on My Sticker” by the Whirlwind Heat. Best-title winner: “Shaky Puddin’ ” by the Soledad Brothers). And read its liner notes: “No suit from L.A. or New York is going to fly to Detroit to check out a band and hand out business cards.”
Well, whatever. The White Stripes are the most sincere and thus un-lame band so far this century. And Jack makes it look easy. “More melody and idea,” as he puts it. “Instead of just lamenting about girls and cars or drugs.”