There's nothing plain about the White Stripes
As a lover of music, you want to hear something different. You want to be exposed to raw power. You want something marvelous and magical. You want immediacy, intimacy, ingenuity. You want to hear a band that has creative control over its art. You want a little mystery, a little myth, some folklore. You want a band that is innovative, yet mindful of the past. One that sets its own tire tracks upon the dusty trails of the music world's pioneers. From Son House to Robert Johnson. Woody Guthrie to Johnny Cash. From Captain Beefheart to Led Zeppelin. You want a band bold enough to release promotional copies of their new album exclusively on the vinyl format so that critics without phonographs can't write about their work. You want the White Stripes.
A minimalist rock duo in an age of technology gone wild, the White Stripes, appearing at the House of Blues, Wednesday, Sept. 28 (with opener M. Ward) have carved out a unique space for themselves in today's prickly world of music. When MTV introduced songs from the band's 2001 breakout album, White Blood Cells ("Fell in Love With a Girl," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground") to millions of unsuspecting new fans around the world, Jack and Meg White, the peppermint candy-clad duo that makes up the White Stripes, were catapulted into the spotlight.
They've shied away from it ever since, but only to prevent over-commercialism and mass marketing strategies from disturbing their process of music making. A process that you can hear was already treated seriously on the band's impressive self-titled debut back in 1999.
Four years later, the White Stripes had another hit album, this time with the dark and captivating Elephant, the band's major label debut, released on V2.
The album, recorded on vintage equipment in a London warehouse, included the 2003 Grammy-winning Best Rock Song ("Seven Nation Army"), a beautiful vocal surprise from Meg ("In the Cold, Cold Night"), a wild take on Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," and plenty of thunderous, hard-edged rock. The album would garner even more praise -- from the mainstream and from the underground -- for the dynamic duo.
Following a post-Elephant break from the White Stripes, about a year, Jack and Meg reconvened in Jack's Detroit studio and put together this past June's Get Behind Me Satan. Taking a haunting and even more eclectic approach than displayed on the bare-bones garage punk blues of the pair's previous outings, their fifth album's sonic focus is on acoustic instruments.
For the most part, marimba and piano playing replace the one-two punch of electric guitar and drums. The unmistakable White riffs are there, but with a hint of Beatles playfulness, giving ghostly new songs like "The Nurse," "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" and "Take, Take, Take" a kind of surreal, "I Am the Walrus" feel. There's still an energetic intensity on the album, exemplified by the lead-off cut, "Blue Orchid," and the loony rocker "My Doorbell." All 13 of the new songs were written, produced and mixed by 30-year-old Jack White.
Since the inception of the White Stripes, Jack White has been a songwriter and performer ahead of his years. As on the band's previous albums, Satan's songs -- from the country twang of "Little Ghost" to the Zeppelin-esque "Instinct Blues" -- are threaded together by the blues. Despite a switch in sound, White continues to tip his fedora to American music pioneers such as the Carter Family and Blind Willie McTell.
Interviewed by film director Jim Jarmusch a couple years back for Interview magazine, Jack White expressed his hope to keep the bridge to American music's past open though his band's music, something he's been doing since the band's first album, which included a cover of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down Blues." Relating the White Stripes' uncomplicated vocal-guitar-drums sound to the primordial Delta blues, White tells Jarmusch, "I think everything from the 20th century goes right back to [the blues] ... The bluesmen have always been ... stripping songwriting down to those three components ... storytelling, melody and rhythm."
White's admiration for early bluesmen like Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Son House extends to the stage, too, where the duo truly becomes larger than life. Along with a wide range of covers included in the band's sets on any given night (Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and Bob Dylan's "Lovesick" sometimes appear) old blues songs like House's "Death Letter" and the traditional "Boll Weevil" often turn up. In that same May 2003 Interview piece, White tells Jarmusch what a sense of achievement he feels getting a song like "Death Letter" stuck in the head of 15-year old girls.
Jack's interest and appreciation for American roots music played a part in his work on the soundtrack for the 2003 film, Cold Mountain (he also acted alongside Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger in the film). A year later, his production work on Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose helped it to become one of 2004's finest albums. The pairing of the country legend and the young Detroit rocker came about after the Stripes dedicated White Blood Cells to Lynn back in 2001. Lynn was touched and met with Jack and Meg down at her Nashville home. After the meeting, she agreed to have Jack produce her "comeback" album. It became an instant classic.
Recently, Jack seems to be following the lead of Dylan, another mercurial figure, ever inspired by the blues, intent on keeping the music of the elder statesmen of American song alive. White, like Dylan, appreciates the timelessness of the pre-war blues lyrics and their appropriateness even in today's ultra-modernistic society. Who knows, maybe it was joining Dylan on a Detroit stage in March '04 -- where the pair teamed up on the Stripes' "Ball and Biscuit" -- that led to White's current pencil-thin mustache?
Also, like Bob Dylan, Jack White is an alias. Born Jack Gillis, the Detroit native reportedly took his partner Meg's surname when the two were married in 1996. Although they eventually divorced, Jack says he knew that he'd never find another drummer like Meg White.
As he tells Rolling Stone's David Fricke in the magazine's Sept. 8 issue: "Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated."
Keeping things simple is one thing that has endeared the White Stripes to fans and critics far and wide. Recent tour dates have brought the Detroit rockers' sound to audiences in South America and Russia. The band heads to Europe this fall to promote the new album, which has been hailed by many as the band's best yet.
Anyone who assumed the White Stripes would be a flash-in-the-pan band with a red, white and black fetish was wrong. Their peppermint candy themed facade masks one of the most talented and unique bands out there today. And as Get Behind Me Satan illustrates, when talented artists are given the freedom to express themselves without worrying about a hit single or a catchy ringtone to hawk, the outcome can be limitless.
The White Stripes perform at the House of Blues at Showboat on Wednesday, Sept. 28, with opener M. Ward. Show time is 8pm. Tickets are $46.50-$66.50. This is an all ages show. Call Ticketmaster at 1-800-736-1420 or 236-BLUE for more information.
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