back to the Black Table

For years I was adrift on a sea of hip-hop and dance music, while rock had simply sunk.

Radiohead didn't cut it, the "genius" of Thom Yorke's pretentious prog rock manifestos escaped me. PJ Harvey had turned into a sane, even-tempered adult whose music bored me to tears. I had just about given up hope that rock had anything left to offer an antiquated Nirvana fan. But then something wonderful happened -- I discovered the White Stripes and realized that my relationship with rock 'n' roll had a little life left in it after all.


Finally, some real, beer swilling rock 'n' roll. Rock simply for the sake of rocking. Rock that is intense, catchy and bare bones honest. Rock that holds nothing back and nails it dead on. Theirs is the rare, beautiful sound of a band that knows exactly how fucking good it is. A band that loves to strut it as much as we feel redeemed by witnessing it.

If the first three White Stripes records and accompanying live shows didn't save rock 'n' roll, they at least gave us reason to believe that it was worth saving in the first place.

But the twin evils of fame and fortune came very quickly for the White Stripes. My instincts had me worried that it would change them into vapid, greedy, megalomaniacal artistes who would abandon rock in favor of a mirror. I just didn't see how they could manage to maintain the raw honesty that they found in their "little room" in Detroit.

In just over a year, they went from being a band that only the indie rock hipsters knew, to superstars playing the MTV Awards while swarmed by a bunch of idiots dancing the monkey. (And what the hell was that about anyway?) Last summer, they even went so far as to yield to the meaningless "garage rock" moniker thrust upon them by lazy journalists and tour with the annoying, vastly overrated pretty boys who aptly call themselves the Strokes. There was every reason to believe that this band's best days were behind them.

This concerned me. As a Midwestern white boy raised on his father's Led Zeppelin records, I will always have an itch that needs to be scratched by sweaty heathens with electric guitars. So when faced with the unknown new White Stripes record -- a record I'd so hoped an obnoxiously poetic "fuck it, we're through" break-up would've precluded -- I braced myself for the possibility that it would mark the inevitable end of my on-and-off 30-year love affair with rock 'n' roll.

So, Did the White Stripes sell out?

While "Elephant" may not be the breakthrough that "White Blood Cells" was, not only did it scratch my itch for rock -- it clawed that fucker raw. As far as rock 'n' roll records go, it is a damn fine specimen, definitely good enough to make me regret my hopes that they'd break up before they shat all over their fine reputation.

"Elephant" was supposedly recorded in just 10 days for under $10,000, exclusively using instruments made before 1963. Instead of sounding completely lost in a state-of-the-art studio, the process helped the newfound superstars capture the DIY spirit and stripped down sound of the rest of their catalog -- but like they have with every new release, they also took the opportunity to explore new territory.

Despite their kitschy outfits and worn-out husband/wife, brother/sister story, or perhaps partially because of it, the White Stripes are a no bullshit band. By wisely opting to keep their personal lives out of the media as much as possible, they exist only through the music they release. We don't know about their politics, we don't know how they met each other, and we don't know what kind of jeans they wear. All we know is that they rock and make us feel good.

This anonymity also has given the White Stripes the flexibility to try new things and take chances without coming off as hypocritical or inconsistent. They can be bluesy, punk rock and sappy all within the span of the same 45-minute record. They're free to add keyboards, or as they have on "Elephant," even a bass, if they so desire. They play by rules that they have set for themselves, keeping the sound raw and direct, but they don't allow outside loyalties, philosophies or vendettas to get in the way of their hitting us straight in the belly.

Like previous efforts, "Elephant" covers a lot of ground, shifting from raunchy, slide blues bravado to hushed lullabies and back again. It continues the band's forage into more accessible and melodious territory that started with "White Blood Cells," but there remains a level of minimalist intensity that keeps it from ever sounding like it was intended for TRL kiddies.


Perhaps working in a "blues tradition" of sorts, the White Stripes have recycled a few familiar riffs. "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" brings back the angular guitar line from "Astro" while "There's no Home For You Here" sounds like Queen's interpretation of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," complete with bright, sweeping group harmonies and a warm, fat guitar solo.

Jack has taken the liberty of adding a number of solos to "Elephant," a stark difference from the solo-less "White Blood Cells," that further accentuates his personal manifestation in the music. His playing may not change the way we think about lead guitar, but it demonstrates how sometimes it's much cooler to tap a vein and let your gut lead the way than it is to be textbook proficient.

The first notes of the album announce "Elephant"'s inclusion of bass. A dark, thumping riff descends into "Seven Nation Army," one of the album's strongest tracks, as Jack's eerie, somewhat menacing and complex melody sets the stage with mysterious defiance: "I'm goin' to Wichita/Far from this opera forevermore/ I'm gonna work the straw/Make the sweat drip out of every pore."

The decision to include bass leads them in new directions with song structure. "Seven Nation Army" uses only the bass and drum for the verses, which adds all the more explosiveness when the guitar chugs the song into the chorus. "Hardest Button to Button" is similarly grounded by a steady bass line, and it gives Jack the latitude to play a twangy, almost Skynard-esque guitar riff that would have been too sparse if played alone.

Meg's work on "Elephant" once again arguably serves little purpose beyond that of a metronome. She clearly is not a technically skilled drummer, but that doesn't mean she isn't excellent, or in the case of working with Jack White, even perfect. The White Stripes straight-ahead, no bullshit approach is bolstered a strong, uncomplicated rhythm. It's hard not to wonder what the music would sound like with a more skilled percussionist, but when you kick back and appreciate what they're doing, Meg's drums work, and they work quite well.

Of course the woman can't sing to save her soul, and unfortunately, she proves that by mewing for three minutes on "In the Cold, Cold Night." It's hard to understand why she would ever be given lead vocal duties, but whatever the reason, her thin, off-key vocals are proof once and for all that these two were once married -- it's just way too easy to tell your sister, "Sorry, but you can't sing."

The Meg song kicks off a series of three quieter tracks. "I Want to be the Boy" is a piano-laden ballad worthy of a hearty Bic-hoisting, and "Keep Her In Your Pocket," a nostalgic acoustic track, is probably the sweetest thing Jack has ever written.

Things pick up again quickly with a 12-bar scorcher, "Ball and Biscuit," on which Jack's swagger is in full effect as he boasts, "I may be your third man, girl, but it's a fact that I'm the seventh son." The White Stripes prowess is almost overwhelming as Jack takes us in and out of heavily distorted screeching solos, making the somewhat blander second half of the record seem almost anti-climatic - save for a loud, nasty cruncher called "Little Acorns," which despite its punishing power chords, is apparently just a cute little ditty about a divorced woman realizing the will to live while watching a squirrel prepare for winter.

"Elephant" is a very good album -- perhaps even a great album when you consider the pressures and expectations the White Stripes faced when they made it. Who knows? Maybe they'll win a Grammy, do a single with Eminem and it'll fall apart as fast as it blew up. But if they were to call it quits after taking "Elephant" on the road, they would do so with the dignity of never having signed their name to affected crap.

Besides, all you can really ask for in a rock record is something honest that compels you to run around your apartment jamming air guitar. Jack and Meg are not idols, rebels or spokespersons -- they're just rock musicians. And despite the importance we may attribute to them, they never said that they're here to change the world or save rock 'n' roll, and they can't be bothered by those who say they have.



Mike Bruno is a New York-based music critic. He was featured in the 2001 De Capo Best Music Writing Guide, edited by Nick Hornby.