Have you heard of this band, the White Stripes?
The Little Detroit Band That Could is, on the eve of the release of their fourth full-length, poised to capitalize on all the brand-name recognition that a year-and-a-half of incessant media spotlighting has afforded them.
For all intents and purposes — and, in particular, to my 12-year-old niece and all her friends — White Blood Cells was the band’s debut. So, in terms of media vulture types, white-hot press exposure plus “debut” album equals high hazard for either A) backlash or B) “sophomore” slump.
That ain’t happening here, folks. With Elephant, Jack and Meg White have neatly sidestepped both by doing what they do best on record: Holing up in a studio and blasting through songs that they’ve come to play (mostly) as though inherited in some lost strand of their DNA.
See, with each of the previous Stripes’ releases, you could chart the band’s progression from feral to filigreed and Elephant, simply put, consolidates the duo’s strengths. Story goes that the disk was recorded during the Great Hype Hurricane of 2002 and that the Whites did the back-to-basics thing at London’s Toe Rag studio. What they emerged with is a record of strength and solitude that boasts a few new wrinkles in Jack White’s songcraft and an immediate, intimate sound that harks back to the duo’s debut LP.
Here are 14 songs, 12 of them absolute stunners (two stumblers in the path) — 45 minutes of what J. White has described as a narrative outlining the “death of the sweetheart.” Indeed, from the opening single “Seven Nation Army” (and that’s apparently an octave guitar, not a bass) through the layered, rock-operatic reimagining of the band’s own “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” “There’s No Home For You Here,” straight through to “The Hardest Button To Button” a Southern Gothic stomp told as cryptic riddle, the landscape of the heart as mapped here is bleak.
But, capital-”R” Rock as the aforementioned songs may be, Elephant relies on the relative quiet of four songs at the album’s center to deliver its true weight. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” is an unsettling rendering of the Bacharach/David chestnut that’s bound to end up on mix tapes (er, CDs) across the land. Meg White takes lead vocal on “Cold Cold Night,” an appropriately spooky, spare tale of a little-girl-lost-as-siren. “Cold Cold Night” is a song likely to be oft-covered. Indeed, it feels like a song that’s been sung before by a Faithfull or a Nico or a Springfield. It only makes sense that future aspirants to said smoky singer vibe will find this gem and try to make it their own. Meg’s reading leaves ample room for imagination as much as interpretation.
“I Want to Be The Boy,” is a pure-hearted piano-and drums paean to innocent first love — a heartwarming effect that lasts only until the first chorus of “Keep Her In Your Pocket” obliterates it with one of the more lovely tales of claustrophobic self-loathing committed to wax this side of Gram Parsons.
“An ‘Instant Classic,’ say Top Critics!”
The two songs are a matched set, of course, but each evokes its mood so thoroughly that you’re wondering what exactly to believe.
The Whites get silly on “Ball and a Biscuit,” though. An extended blues riff that finds Jack crowing in a camp-ready new blues voice “Tell everybody in the place to get out/we’ll get clean together/and I’ll find a soapbox where I can shout about it.” It’s misanthropic enough to be satire and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to jam out on the blooz, I suppose, but in context, “Ball and Biscuit” and the later autopilot Garage Rock® romp “Hypnotize” nearly break the airtight seal that makes the record powerful in the first place. Nearly.
Thankfully, good sense prevails with the arch-unto-sincere sample of Mort Crim offering one of his Paul Harvey-ish homilies about perseverance, the sly “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” and the funny closing acoustic country trio-dialogue featuring punk grande dame Holly Golightly, Meg and Jack trading barbs.
All told, in the quieter, sincere moments, you get a glimpse at the workings of the band and their take on romance. The bluster and misanthropy are foils for the sincerity. And there are times when Jack genuinely doffs the cap of New Classic American Pop Craftsmen.
Somehow, in making a record that feels so small and up-close, the Whites have managed to put their larger-than-life persona back into musical perspective.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.