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The White Stripes: The Elephant in the Room

2nd July

elephant.jpg

Browse any number of music forums and message boards around the web sometime and search for threads related to The White Stripes. Invariably you will find a growing chorus of fans who fell in love with the post-punk sublimity of De Stijl and, to a lesser extent, the breakthrough White Blood Cells, only to be almost entirely alienated by the rotten egg they laid in 2003 with the muddled catastrophe of Elephant. Now with Icky Thump living up only to the first word of its title with the occasional exception (the title track among them), it seems as if the momentary streak of brilliance they offered on Get Behind Me Satan–a wild and stunningly successful departure from the tired recipe of previous albums–was merely a passing tease.

It’s surely no surprise that their major-label debut–Icky Thump–interrupted what Satan foreshadowed: a stretching of the band’s creative boundaries that left them to explore as broad a range of possibilities as ever before. In keeping with the kind of anxieties that accompany major-label debuts by established bands (as in Death Cab’s pitiful Plans, their first LP for Atlantic), Icky Thump sounded like the timid product of sessions in which the band tried their damnedest to sound like the band their label wanted–and so the album went in two different directions at once, with one foot on the beaten path of all the band had done before and the other in the more eccentric arrangements Jack White showcased on Get Behind Me Satan.

Satan qualifies as a rock ‘n roll landmark and is at once the band’s most daring and accessible piece of work–and if you think that’s an easy balance to strike, you try it, tough guy. But of all the band’s 6 albums, one stands alone as the turning point that we didn’t have the hindsight to see for what it was at the time: 2003’s Elephant, a total crapper of an album from start to finish that rivals only the more recent Icky Thump in indulgence and unlistenability.

After firmly establishing themselves as the undisputed rock ‘n roll resurrection by 2003, The White Stripes answered their growing frenzy of devotees with one dud of an album. A band that, just a year prior, was universally hailed as a much-welcome throwback to a sound long dead, the stripped down guitar/drums duo from Detroit seemed about as interested in fanning the flames of their growing fame as a 25-year-old Neil Young. “That album put me in the middle of the road, so I headed for the ditch,” Young, who followed up 1972’s monumental Harvest with the deliberately inaccessible Time Fades Away in 1973, explained years later. Young has since called it his worst album and, to this day, has refused to release it on CD (it remains a vinyl-only collector’s gem.) It seems that the White Stripes are up to much of the same thing on the careless, uninspired and puerile albums Elephant and Icky Thump.


The White Stripes: “Blue Orchid,” Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

What were addictive and delightfully anachronistic rockers on De Stijl and White Blood Cells have given way to a drab collections of clunkers that sound more like sloppy, half-baked demos and outtakes. Taut, muscular collections doused in blues and grit such as De Stijl demonstrated a mammoth potential, rekindling the hopes of long-time subscribers to the “rock is dead” mantra. The orgasmic cacophony that emerged from Meg White’s sizzling drums and Jack White’s guitar and uncanny wail produced a sound that resounded with improbable richness and fervor. It was hardly unfamiliar but still, somehow, distinctive. From gorgeous rock ballads like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to raucous jams like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or the brain-searing “Let’s Build A Home,” Meg and Jack White, knowingly or not, had taken the fate of rock ‘n roll into their hands.

Beginning with an unlikely bass line complimented by Meg’s angry, thumping drums, Elephant serves as a mighty tease. Just as it seems that The Stripes had at last discovered a sound of even deeper texture and richness without compromising their essential minimalism, the album unfolds into so much noise and nonsense. Song after song rings hollow, as Jack’s lazy guitar simply mimes old motions while the downright irreverent snap of Meg’s drumming is conspicuously dormant. A shrieking, murky chorus ruins the aimless “There’s Just No Home For You Here,” while “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” sounds, at best, like an anemic stepchild to superior ballads from past albums, such as “Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.”

Perhaps Elephant‘s most egregious moment comes on the pseudo-poetic “In The Cold Cold Night,” on which Meg White sounds entirely foolish, lending a self-conscious and timid croon to lines so juvenile as to be the stuff of bad teen angst poetry:

I saw you standing on the corner,On the edge of a burning light,

I saw you standing on the corner,

Come to me again in the cold cold night…

“I don’t care what other people say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” she continues to the plucking of a guitar lick that sounds like a ragged attempt at nailing down a Harry Mancini riff.


The White Stripes: “Well it’s True That We Love One Another,” Elephant (2003)

As with most rock ‘n roll mishaps, though, a few gems emerge from the rubble of an unfortunate album. The explosive “Seven Nation Army” resounds with such energy and purpose as to seem like the work of another band altogether. The mean-eyed “The Hardest Button to Button” would crack an indulgent smile from the mouth of any AC/DC die-hard, and a flicker of soul ignites the piano-drenched “I Want To Be The Boy”–a sound the band would extend to such astonishing effect on Get Behind Me Satan.

Overall, however, the once formidable White Stripes seem to have morphed into a joke that few others are cool enough to get. “Just say Jack do you adore me,” Meg slurs on the silly, throwaway tune recorded with punk-rocker Holly Golightly, “It’s True That We Love One Another.” “Well I really would Holly but love really bores me” Jack answers. Judging from the remarkably listless Elephant, one wonders whether the music, too, bores poor Jack.

Icky Thump and Elephant are the modern-day equivalents of Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, two underwhelming albums the Stones slapped together in the stunned aftermath of Exile on Main Street, that enduring masterpiece they released in 1972. Only fleeting glimpses of The Stones’ genius emerged from that point on–a tight tune somewhere on Tattoo You or a surprising sign of grit on more recent rock-outs like “Gunface” or “Dangerous Beauty.” If it’s true that history repeats itself, it’s a safe bet to expect only fleeting glimpses of brilliance from The Stripes going forward, yet another now-legendary rock band we once so trustingly relied on for an escape from the mindless doldrums of FM radio.


The Rolling Stones: “Gunface,” Bridges to Babylon (1997)

22 Years Later: Why Neil Young’s “Landing on Water” Deserves a Second Listen

28th April

Young

Of all the 60s legends who took baffling artistic detours through the decade Kris Kristofferson described as “shipwrecked,” Neil Young’s was by far the most fascinating. And Lord knows there were some “detours.” By the time Landing On Water came out in ’86, Dylan continued to languish in the alcoholic aftermath of a schizophrenic religious identity that produced material both interesting and intolerable (mostly the latter—and if you doubt that for one second, give a listen to Slow Train Comin’s “When You Gonna Wake Up” and let me know how you feel in the morning. Typical side effects include severe nausea, blurred vision, and sudden death.) The Stones, for their part, long-before settled into a steady offering of McSingles on albums they recorded with gritted teeth from opposite ends of a studio, tolerating one another only out of greed to produce records like Dirty Work, an album full of furiously delivered songs whose titles reflect the animosities of the band—“Too Rude,” “Had it With You.” You get the picture.

After responding to the epic success of the Rust albums with characteristically unpredictable forays into inaccessible pseudo-punk (Reactor) and rickety folk meanderings (Hawks & Doves)–exchanging main stream acceptance for the worship of anonymous new wave dorks in the underground clubs of New York and L.A.–Neil Young journeyed to places few of his fans were willing to go: the electronica beats of Trans which, we later learned, featured electronically distorted vocals that emerged from attempts at communicating through a computer with his son Ben, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy (Neil’s charitable efforts to defeat the condition are legendary and ongoing.)

In retrospect, the 80s are as legendary a period in Neil Young’s career as his 70s heyday–not because the music was great, but precisely because it wasn’t, culminating in the now-infamous lawsuit David Geffen filed against Young for making music that didn’t sound Neil Young enough (Geffen won.) Many like to call Landing on Water Neil’s worst album, but that distinction–if we really must make it–belongs to the morbidly produced Everybody’s Rockin, the musical middle finger to Geffen Records Neil recorded a few years earlier. While Springsteen and Joel discovered new voices with 50s nostalgia pieces like “Pink Cadillac” and “Uptown Girl” around the same time, Neil’s flirtation with similar curiosities reflected, if anything, a voice that had become all but irretrievable.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: “Sleeps With Angels”

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Landing on Water further exemplifies the erratic artistic indulgences Young favored at the time, with its characteristically grungy licks and riffs laid over a jarring and misguided cacophony of synthesized drums and rhythms. It isn’t just that the album sounds dated in 2008; the production is so insular that it was destined to sound dated before the year of its release came to a close.

And yet, despite all this, Landing on Water contains three essential performances that open-minded fans will learn to appreciate. “Hippie Dream”–with its moving eulogy for the bygone days of flower power–is a biting indictment of an era he helped define. “Another flower child / goes to seed / in an ether-filled room / of meat hooks. / It’s so ugly, / so ugly,” Young sings of his cocaine-addled brother in arms, David Crosby, a disturbingly prophetic anticipation of the liver transplant Crosby would receive nine years later. Other tunes like “Drifter” and “Touch the Night” showcase a Neil Young who almost finds his groove amid the album’s synth-laden idiosyncrasies.

These songs are treasures of an artistic vision stretching to fathom the boundaries of its expression, and the ambition of the material it produced at that time is, to my ears, every bit as beautiful as Young’s best work. It may not always have sounded great—in fact, it usually strained just to sound listenable. But Neil’s refusal to look away from less familiar artistic terrain is exactly the kind of edginess his reputation is founded on, and it is the good fan who understands that glories like Sleeps With Angels, Freedom and Ragged Glory could not have been possible without the misadventures that preceded them.