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Mixed messages
The White Stripes sow brilliant confusion with Get Behind Me Satan
Related Links

The White Stripesí official Web site

Joseph Patel reviews the White Stripes' Elephant

Carly Carioli watches the White Stripes at the Roxy

From the Times of London to the LA Times, NPR to Rolling Stone, Melbourneís Herald-Sun to the White Stripesí home-town Detroit Free Press, journalists have spent the past month praising the neo-primitive rock duo of Meg (percussion and occasional vocals) and Jack White (everything else) as the most daring act in pop music. The occasion for this celebration: the June 7 release of the White Stripesí fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan (Third Man/V2). "Itís an album so strong and so unexpected that it may change the way people hear all its predecessors," Kelefa Sanneh declared in the May 29 Sunday New York Times. "And thatís just a start. Listen long enough, and this album might change the way you hear lots of other bands, too."

Whether or not you agree, thereís no question that the White Stripes have upended standard commercial practices and their own sound with this disc. Jack recorded the album in his Detroit home for about $10,000 in a mere two or three weeks. The first single, "Blue Orchid," was released two weeks after it was mastered. The band provided only a handful of interviews to promote the album, and they organized a worldwide tour only of places theyíd never played, from Turkey to Chile.

More important, the disc mostly forgoes the explosive minimalist rock that burst the Stripes into the retro-rock buzz bin of the Strokes and the Hives in 2001 with White Blood Cells and won them a pair of Grammys in 2003 for Elephant (both now on V2). Only three of Get Behind Me Satanís 13 tracks feature Jack Whiteís bluesy, unhinged electric guitar; the others are anchored by acoustic guitar, grand piano, and marimba. Yet it doesnít feel unplugged, either ó Whiteís production is just too minutely detailed and jarring at once, often processing the arrangements to buzz and break as harshly as Nine Inch Nails, yet with instrumentation that remains half as loud and a thousand times more human in scale. Echoing Sanneh, Evelyn McDonnell summed up the effect in the Miami Herald: "Despite making music that is overtly renegade and retro, the White Stripes are . . . as plugged into the future as the past ó mostly by being emphatically present."

The public has made McDonnellís words ring as true as a cash register. The current Billboard reports that Get Behind Me Satan sold 189,000 copies its first week out, surpassing Elephantís opening week by some 50,000 copies and its highest chart position by three places, landing at #3 in the Top 200. Yet for all this achievement, there lurks a nagging "so what?" In the Internet and SoundScan age, plenty of offbeat but ultimately isolated albums chart high to start with. That doesnít come close to confirming the Free Press rave that Get Behind Me Satan is "the kind of work that nudges rockís sound and culture into a new direction."

Doubts about the discís ultimate significance are amplified by the minority mainstream reviews ó maybe one in four or five ó that complain itís exasperatingly half-baked. Of these, Sasha Frere-Jonesís nay-say in the New Yorker is the most cogent. "White is as perverse as he is talented, and that keeps his albums, like the newest, from being as fun as they are smart," Frere-Jones writes in the June 13 issue. "He has succumbed to the indie-rock delusion that the idiosyncratic part of your gift (I have a weird voice, I recorded this all on vintage analog gear at my own house, I have large biceps but also look like Michael Jackson) means more than its universal aspects (my weird voice is appealing, I write great words, my songs are easily sung)." Frere-Jonesís suggested solution? "Why not bring in a producer like Rich Harrison, write a killer bridge, and get Christina Aguilera to sing the chorus with you?" It shows how little sympathy the dissenters have for Jackís devils, and maybe the degree to which they misapprehend his divine talent.

Listen to the June 9 White Stripes interview on NPRís Fresh Air (you can stream it at www.freshair.com) and youíll hear an impassioned but thoroughly typical pair of American indie-rockers ó rampant individualists and perennial outsiders setting out to create their own truths in a thoroughly relativistic culture ó no more articulate in their patchwork and somewhat arbitrary musical vision than Kurt Cobain. Like Cobain, White has a musical talent and a populist sensibility that may run as wide and as deep as John Lennonís or Hank Williamsí, which is to say as wide and as deep any popular musicianís ever. The difference is, Cobain (born 1967) and White (born 1975) came up at a time when populism could no longer be equated with commercialism. The connection back to the world for both was heavy metal as absorbed through the conduit of small-scale underground rock. In Whiteís case, that meant heavy metal at its most formative moment, when Led Zeppelin were creating it whole cloth from the blues.

The reason he went back that far, I suspect, is because he grew up in a Catholic household in Detroit, a sprawling wasteland of industrial wreckage and isolated suburbs where white kids have the choice of connecting to the musical innovations of urban blacks, as Madonna and Eminem did, or to the past, the way the Go, the Wildbunch/Electric Six, the Gore Gore Girls, and other minor talents have in the Motor City and other Rust Belt nowheres like my home town, Cleveland. But the other cultural force that Cobain and White connected to ó the thing thatís rarely mentioned and most truly radical about their vision ó is feminism. Cobain expressed it through his union with Courtney Love and by turning metalís pathological male aggression inward on himself as often as on his musical love objects. Jack White connected to it by taking the last name of his ex-wife and musical partner, Meg White, calling her his sister, and poking and prodding the pathological male aggression inherent in Zeppelin, the blues, country music, and old time rock and roll with an unprecedented self-knowledge.

Live, the relationship between Jack and Meg is so potent it often threatens to explode. For years, the power of their shows was something of a Midwestern secret, known from Milwaukee to Cleveland, but as White says in his Fresh Air interview, he has no interest in remaining anyoneís secret. Neither did Kurt Cobain. Somewhere in his gut, White must know how this turned out for Cobain ó and how it turns out for so many rockers whose populism is swamped by commercialismís demands. Which may be why he beat a strategic retreat with Get Behind Me Satan. The one time his passions and talents have aligned on album was the White Stripesí last moment of relative anonymity, White Blood Cells. After that, he tried to expand on the messy, sometimes brilliant Elephant and the overly reverential collaboration with Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope). Get Behind Me Satan is a retreat into what he always knew, but it also tries to incorporate what heís learned since.

The brilliance that the over-saturated critics adduce is there because this is an obsessive relationship album cyclically exploring trust, betrayal, and longing. The shortcomings Get Behind Me Satanís detractors detect are also there: despite its unprecedented crunch, "Blue Orchid" is sketchy, and even the two most immediate winners, the pop-perfect "My Doorbell" and the hymn-like "Iím Lonely (But I Ainít That Lonely Yet)," are hampered by muddy production and the absence of electric guitar, the one instrument on which Jack breaks free of his self-imposed formalist constraints. Even so, from the haunting marimba on "The Nurse" to the Robert-Plant-meets-Katharine-Hepburn blowout "Red Rain," the disc gets over on the principle that indie geeks and Woody Guthrie acolytes and avant-ascetics have known for decades. Pop music doesnít have to be fun to be great.

Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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