The snobbish sophistication of White Stripes
SOUNDS FAMILIAR - Baby A. Gil () - August 6, 2007 - 12:00am

White Stripes must be one of the most successful rock groups of recent times. Now on its 10th year in the music business, it has released six big-selling and also critically acclaimed albums. The White Stripes, De Stijl, White Blood Cells, the Grammy-winning Elephant, Get Behind Me Satan and the latest is Icky Thump. Each new album is more remarkable than the one before, boasting of innovative arrangements, unique points of reference and the guts to keep discovering and using what is strange and new but could be an important addition to the music.

White Stripes is made up of Jack White and Meg White who used to be married to each other but are now divorced. They both sing vocals, strong and snarling from Jack, strong but ethereal from Meg. Jack plays the guitar and writes the songs while Meg takes care of the drums. Now, there was a time while listening to Icky Thump when I honestly thought they were British. Then I remembered that the early recordings were actually on the folksy side and very American. The Whites are not British. What they have is a kind of snobbish sophistication in the way they approach the music which is not commonly associated with American bands. And come to think of it, if you will take a close look at Icky Thump, you too will get the feeling that White Stripes sometimes also think themselves British.

There are a lot of British influences in the new album. For one, they use a lot of bagpipes in the arrangements. Another one is that portrait of England’s Queen Victoria inside the cover. There is a song titled Rag and Bone that reminds me of movies based on novels by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen where junkmen/peddlers on horse-drawn carts go from village to village shouting “rag and bone” to make their presence known. Then the Whites pray for help in St. Andrew (This Battle is in the Air) and I recall reading somewhere that St. Andrew’s in Scotland is the best golf course in the world. Of course, like me I am sure you also wondered about the title cut. What is Icky Thump? And it turned out to be an old British expression of surprise.

No surprises in the album though. It is everything that can be expected from White Stripes and that means great in a madcap sort of way. Icky Thump is what would be normally described as White Stripes’ big sounding arena album. But though louder than usual, it is also clear that the Whites are not merely working towards filling up Wembley or Madison Square Garden. This is not Maroon 5. There is too much integrity at stake here. With Icky Thump, what White Stripes is reaching out for is all of rock and roll. Better yet I would say that they are playing with all of those sounds that made rock and roll.

The Whites who like to dress in only three colors, red, black and white, create sounds that are more varied and more colorful than their wardrobe. The main color is blue but it takes on various shades. So it is bluesy Celtic, bluesy folk, punk, abrasive grunge, booming rock as in the loud, twanging guitar of the power-loaded title cut and even a reconstructed Patti Page hit from the ’50s Conquest. Of course, any all-encompassing album of rock and roll should include Brit rock, and ergo, they present to us all those things British.

The most commercial of the lot is big rocker Icky Thump. If you want something more emo there is You Don’t Know What Love is (You Just Do as You’re Told), for early White Stripe sound there is Effect and Cause. The other titles are 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Bone Broke, Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn, Little Cream Soda, I’m Slowly Turning into You, A Martyr for My Love for You, Catch Hell Blues and Rag and Bone, where Jack raps the way a junkman would in those English villages of old.

“Have you got something shiny for me/ anybody got a Christmas tree/ can you part with a toilet seat…you think it’s trash granny/ but it’s not/ we’ll be takin’ whatever you got….rag and bone/ all of your pretty/ your pretty little rags and bone…”

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