There are many examples in popular music of stripping away the superfluity and getting back to basics, but it doesn’t get much more basic than Detroit’s The White Stripes. Dispensing even with a bass player, the purported brother and sister duo delivered direct, blues-inflected rock. Their first album was released in 1999, while the band essentially wound down after their sixth album in 2007.
Jack White is full of charisma, he’s a talented guitarist and writes all the songs. On the other hand, his former wife Meg is a rudimentary drummer, but her simple style gives the band its unique sound. The White Stripes have a strong conceptual basis – their visual appearance is also an important component of this – breaking down rock and blues to their barest essentials and re-configuring them, and Meg’s extremely simplified technique is a crucial part of the aesthetic.
I like The White Stripes’ unique sound, and Jack White’s a talented man, but there’s only so much White Stripes music I need in my life. Their stripped back, blues derived sound can only go so far, and I only own three of their six albums – I reviewed a couple of others when I borrowed them from a friend, and I’ve never bothered with 2007’s swansong Icky Thump.
The White Stripes, however, were one of the best rock and roll singles band of their era – ‘Seven Nation Army’, ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’, and ‘My Doorbell’ all sounded great on the radio. Jack White’s career has continued with The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and as a solo artist.
The White Stripes Album Reviews
The White Stripes
Compared to their later records, Te White Stripes’ debut album is extremely primitive. It’s messily produced and raw sounding, and there’s seldom more than a single guitar track, Jack’s vocal and Meg’s drums. While this raw sound does have its appeal, it becomes wearying over the course of the album, even if they do vary the approach by using acoustic guitar or piano as the primary instrument or by adding some organ. Still, as long as they’re working with strong material, they sound terrific.
Their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Stop Breaking Down’ blows away the Rolling Stones’ take from Exile On Main Street for pure energy. There’s also an effective cover of Dylan’s ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’, showing a group with enough depth of knowledge to avoid making the most obvious choice of songs to cover, and to pay homage to a myriad of influences without sending particularly derivative of anything in particular. In any case, the covers hardly overshadow Jack’s best songs, such as the propulsive opener ‘Jimmy The Exploder’, the impassioned ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby’ and the anthemic ‘Astro’. He even shows a more delicate side with the delicate ‘Sugar Never Tasted So Good’.
The group would benefit from clearer production and a more powerful sound on their next effort, but most of the fundamental elements of their style are already in place here.
De Stijl is a step forward in most facets, with a noticeably tidier production and stronger original songs. Being The White Stripes, there’s nothing in the way of line up changes, exotic instrumentation (although White does throw in some slide guitar occasionally) or diversity. In fact, this record sounds pretty much exactly like the last one, except that it’s more confident and more professional, and the covers are less high profile this time; I had no idea that they were covers until I double checked.
The most striking piece is the propulsive rocker ‘Hello Operator’, which demonstrates how effective The White Stripes’ stripped back sound can be, with its repetitive riffing adding urgency to the paranoid vocals. It follows on nicely from the opening ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking (or A Girl)’, upping the ante a notch after its predecessor’s catchy riff craft. Elsewhere it’s the acoustic material that makes an impression; ‘I’m Bound To Pack It Up’ is a charming expedition into folk, while the acoustic cover of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’ ends the album on a warm but slightly ambiguous note.
De Stijl isn’t an all time favourite, but it’s a modestly enjoyable album that’s punchy and inviting.
White Blood Cells
White Blood Cells was The White Stripes’ breakthrough effort; 2001 was the year of the garage rock revival, and with their stripped down sound and aggressive delivery, The White Stripes were among the flag bearers of the genre. The album’s sound reflects the garage band trend; the arty minimalism of De Stijl isn’t as prevalent, replaced by a dirtier fuller sound. They’re still the same two piece band, so there’s no bass to risk confusion with The Hives, The Vines and the rest of the crop of 2001, but this new direction is more generic than what they were doing previously. White’s vocal style has changed too; whinier and less pleasant.
White Blood Cells starts strongly with ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’, another catchy riff, while ‘Offend In Every Way’ demonstrates that there are still some interesting variations available within their blues rock style. The single ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ is the highlight, a propulsive garage rocker, while ‘This Protector’ is a nice closing piano piece. For the first time on a White Stripes album, some of the songs grate – ‘I Think I Smell A Rat’ is particularly annoying.
I’m not sure if I’m getting sick of the White Stripes’ lack of stylistic variation, or just find this album’s garage band style less appealing than its punchy, bluesy predecessors, but White Blood Cells offers nothing that their previous two didn’t.
The White Stripes’ fourth album Elephant was their high water mark commercially and artistically. It reflects their newly found star status, with an irresistible single (‘Seven Nation Army’), an audacious cover of a Bacharach standard (‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’), a seven minute blues epic (‘Ball and Biscuit’, full of braggadocio like “It’s quite possible that I’m your third man girl/But it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son”), and an album closer, featuring Holly Golightly on guest vocals, that gets mileage out of deflating the mythology around the group.
Other elements of diversity on Elephant include Meg getting her first lead vocal on ‘In The Cold Cold Night’, bearing a close resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s drummer Mo Tucker. The so sincere that it’s insincere ‘I Want To Be The Boy’ pays homage to seventies AOR. Perhaps most revolutionary of all, there’s an actual bass-line in the singles ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button’, although Jack claims that the bass sound was created on guitar. And there are still plenty of cracking guitar riffs, like ‘Black Math’ and ‘There’s No Home For You Here’.
The group’s refusal to take themselves seriously in the face of success with such a playful record is refreshing.
Get Behind Me Satan
Elephant was a career peak for The White Stripes, a difficult album to better, so the band diversified with Get Behind Me Satan, a gentler and more relaxed effort. If Elephant was their Led Zeppelin IV, Get Behind Me Satan was their Houses of the Holy. There’s less blues than usual here, and songs are often based around piano or acoustic guitar; the best known song ‘My Doorbell’ is built around Jack White’s strident piano.
Despite the different approach, it’s often excellent, one of the band’s stronger efforts. There are still blues based songs like the urgent opener ‘Blue Orchid’ and ‘Instinct Blues’, but the most enjoyable stuff is the new territory – Meg White’s primitive, propulsive thump works well on piano driven songs like ‘My Doorbell’ and ‘Denial Twist’, and they’re my favourites here. Meg White takes lead vocal on the brief ‘Passive Manipulation’, while ‘Take, Take, Take’ gets some good urgency out of an acoustic guitar piece.
Get Behind Me Satan is a relaxed, pragmatic followup to the monstrous Elephant – a group with a limited stylistic palette successfully exploring new styles.
2007, not rated
I haven’t heard a note from the duo’s final album.
Ten Favourite White Stripes Songs
Seven Nation Army
Ball and Biscuit
Fell In Love With A Girl
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
I’m Bound To Pack It Up
Stop Breaking Down
You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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