‘Satan’ and assorted love songs
AUDIOSYNCRASY - Igan D’Bayan () - September 23, 2005 - 12:00am
A digression: stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

I refuse to believe rock is in a state of putrefaction. Sure, rock these days is relegated to singing You Can’t Always Get What You Want in a rock n’ roll karaoke contest, with Dave Navarro (a great guitarist who managed to piss away his reputation by being a studio mercenary for Puff Daddy and the batty Mariah Carey) acting like a combination of Paula Abdul, Dr. Phil and Yoda. To think INXS isn’t even a proper rock band; it’s more disco than distortion. Imagine if Nirvana conducted televised tryouts to replace Kurt Cobain. To stave off elimination, the bottom three contestants will have to sing Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then Dave Grohl will tell the loser, "Sorry, you’re not right for our band Nirvana." Cue the obligatory hugs and then to Brooke Burke with her invisible skirt.

Sure, we got "rocker chicks" – from Ashlee Simpson to Marion Raven – singing mostly about growing up and how it sucks to be a celebrity.

Sure, we got a plethora of pogi rock purveyors emoting all over the music video channels, their syrupy songs giving genuine rockers the urge to wet their beds. Anyway, in that omnipresent Hale song, what do the lines "I’m freezing in the sun/I’m burning in the rain" and "Oblivion is falling down" mean anyway? No, Orange and Lemons doesn’t sound like The Smiths. Even Morrissey these days doesn’t sound like The Smiths. And it’s a bad job to name a band Blow.

There are those who rake in all the money by plagiarizing foreign groups. There is a band of pogi rockers (B) who stole a Boo Radleys song (Wake Up Boo) and turned it into a coffee commercial jingle. Also, the group of siblings (SR) who lifted the riffs from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Rocket and Oasis’ The Hindu Times and incorporated them in its hit song. (Listen to the tracks and e-mail iganja_ys@yahoo.com and tell me which bands do you think is responsible for the grand theft audio.)

Great thing rock ain’t dead yet. Really.

Just listen to Sugarfree, Sheila and the Insects, Urbandub, Twisted Halo, and Radioactive Sago Project, which is not technically a rock band, but since jazz, spoken word, cha-cha and tango rock, so what the frig is your problem?

Now, let us all hold hands and sing, "Alive, alive…"
Jack, Meg, Rita, Satan, Marimbas – The White Stripes Stripped
Truth to tell, I wasn’t keen on buying the new White Stripes album. Yes, buy.

Another digression: contrary to popular belief, those who write music reviews – from Juaniyo Arcellana and Scott Garceau (whose insightful articles give me the urge to pursue another career… cosmetology, perhaps), to the ones who listen to a few tracks in their iPods, filch stuff from the Internet, regurgitate something, anything, and then talk authoritatively as if they’re Cameron Crowe. More like Cameron kropek.

There was no chance Jack and Meg White’s "Get Behind Me, Satan" album was going to land on my desk: a repository for strange stuff – letters, invites, packages, an unopened Soapdish CD, an alien blob, things only a microscope could detect, etc. But never albums that I really, really want. Record labels promote the hell out of those R&B prince and princess of darkness, but not, say, the Magic Numbers. (When I was in a cab and I heard MYMP perform Especially for You, I was reminded of the great Rene Requiestas singing "Espesyal ang menu.") So I contemplated on buying the follow-up to the analogue wonder "Elephant" of 2003.

But I always thought the White Stripes was in danger of imitating itself, and churn out album after solipsistic album – like Sonic Youth, which gives critics wet dreams, but is damply dismissed by the mainstream. Not like Ryan Adams who keeps things exciting by debuting with a diamond ("Heartbreaker") and then screwing up his career with karmic rock chameleon misfire ("Rock N’ Roll").

The White Stripes began as a sham, a piece of rock n’ roll theater. Husband and wife Jack and Meg White posed as siblings; donned outlandish outfits in red, white and black; and mined garage punk, blues, Americana, pop, country & western. If much-hyped The Strokes plays one-dimensional "The Who meets Velvet Underground" music ("Lou Reed, meet Pete Townshend…" "Pete Townshend, meet Lou Reed…"), and Interpol shadows Ian Curtis and the Joyless Division, Jack and Meg are more interesting for their conceit. They know the value of constructing their own mythology, which is essential in rock n’ roll.

Blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly made a pact with the devil at the crossroads. Same with Led Zeppelin with its road tales of mud sharks, tubs, groupies, hexes, and dabbling into the occult (Guitarist Jimmy Page even bought Aleister Crowley’s Boleskin House). There were also Keith Richards’ blood transfusion in Switzerland, and the "Paul is dead" rumors.

Rumor has it that the darkness that pervades White Stripes’ new album was due to the breakup with the forever pouting Bridget Jones actress. Bollocks, Jack would say. The actress behind the musings in "Get Behind Me, Satan" is ’40s screen siren Rita Hayworth and Jack’s fantasy meeting with her.

Hayworth even figures in one of Jack’s songs about stalking a celebrity and being handed a piece of paper with a lipstick mark and the words "My heart is in my mouth." Lyrically, Jack has never been this intriguing. As for the music…

The self-titled debut (released in ’99) boasts reverb-soaked guitars and start-stop drum dynamics mining punk, garage rock, and the blues with big Black Sabbath riffs. Sort of like Leadbelly singing with The Damned. Great cover of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down, a Rolling Stones anthem. Other great highlights are The Big Three Killed My Baby and Screwdriver.

"De Stijl" (2000) – Dutch for "style" – brings more of the same with dashes of piano and guitars with open tunings. Has Apple Blossom and Death Letter.

"White Blood Cells" (2002) was the breakthrough. A big rock n’ roll record made by just two people with a guitar, a drum set and a whole catalogue of myth behind them. Hotel Yorba is a quirky roots rocker just like Bob Dylan’s only happy song in "Blood on the Tracks." Fell in Love with a Girl is a garage rock classic (ruined beyond recognition by Joss Stone). My favorite track, The Same Boy You’ve Always Known, is a plaintive ballad with balls.

"Elephant" (2003) institutionalized The White Stripes. Starting off with Seven Nation Army (where Jack unleashed a heavily distorted guitar and "the hounds of hell") to There’s No Room For You Here (a classic rock tune the moment it was waxed) to Ball and Biscuit (a screwed-up, staggering blues number) to Hardest Button To Button (odd lyrics, incessant beat) to the threesome with Holly Golightly.

The follow-up is stripped (more piano, more acoustic guitars, more minimalist), but not any less obstinate. Listening to Blue Orchid is like getting punched with fuzz, distortion and minimalist drums. One critic said it sounds like a Foreigner song. What, Hot-blooded?

The Nurse
is a tale of betrayal backed by cacophonous piano, jabs of white noise and – surprise, surprise – marimba. "No, I’ll never gonna let you down now," Jack sings, sarcastically perhaps.

My Doorbell
is Jack White singing like Robert Plant getting his lemons squeezed out from under him. This track tries to exude the same vibe as the tunes in "Led Zeppelin III." Not bad for a Detroit kid wearing a matador suit.

Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)
is melancholic and majestic. For Renee, perhaps. "Let’s do it/Let’s just get on a plane and do it," Jack pleads over an egg-shaker.

The bluegrass Little Ghost is skip-able, sticking out like an extroverted Bozo the Clown in a Tupperware party for existentialists.

The catchy The Denial Twist boasts bass (yes, bass), tambourines and lines about "hearing a different song."

White Moon
is a piano ballad also about Rita, her picture, and "the tomb of a deserted cartoon." The song boasts no shiny, happy chorus or a resolution. (Does every song need to?)

Instinct Blues
is Jack White’s proof that he could be, in the words of Q magazine, both Page and Plant. This song seethes with bleeding-heart blues even "the ants and crickets get it." In the solo bits, Jack plays as if his fingers get stuck between the strings. Meg plays like a broken record. Beautifully.

Passive Manipulation
is a Meg ditty about not succumbing to the "wishes of your brothers." Hmm… interesting.

Take, Take, Take
is a song about Hayworth framed by a jangly acoustic and repetitive piano. Here, Jack poses as an autograph hound from hell. It recalls brash ’70s rock ballads the same way the next cut As Ugly As I Seem does. Like an edgier Eagles or Kansas or Buffalo Springfield.

Great slide work in Red Rain. It has a classic White Stripes groove. Weird marimba bridge, though. (Or is that a bottle being hit with a Cold Mountain videotape?)

My favorite track is the song that begins like Black Sabbath’s Changes and flow like Guns N’ Roses’ You Ain’t The First. I’m Lonely But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet is Jack stealing an old melody and wallowing in the river of regret, the source of inspiration for all the dead black blues men. It is the gospel of the blues preachd by a guy in red, black and white. Myth? Artifice? As long as the music sizzles, who the frig cares?

Besides, who would have thought the marimba could sound so menacing?
* * *
For comments, suggestions, curses and invocations, e-mail iganja_ys@yahoo.com.

BLACK SABBATH BLUES GET BEHIND ME JACK JACK AND MEG WHITE JACK WHITE ROCK SONG WHITE WHITE STRIPES
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