2007 / Music

Review: White Stripes’ Return Packs Hollow ‘Thump’

Powerhouse Blues-Rock Duo Release Sixth Record

Whether it’s tomorrow, in sixth months or many years from now when he’s sitting on a Nashville porch playing Blind Willie McTell songs in his rocking chair, the White Stripes’ Jack White will someday realize that forming side project the Raconteurs was a mistake.

Photo: Third Man Records/Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Third Man Records/Warner Brothers Records

For such a widely respected classic-rock auteur like White, the idea of creating another musical project might have seemed like the next logical step for his lofty ambitions. After all, he ascended into rock’s elite with the unlikely bluesy stomp of the White Stripes and has remained the lone flag bearer for the 2001 garage-rock revival who can still command arenas full of fans. Striking out with the power-pop Raconteurs offered yet another maverick creative outlet for White’s history-revering talents and expanded his songwriting brand beyond the simplified 12-bar thudding of the Stripes.

Unfortunately, the new band seems to signal the death knell for his bread and butter.

The first problem is that the Stripes’ guitar savagery and primitive bam/crash drumming will be consciously or unconsciously compared with the Raconteurs’ tight rhythms and dual vocal blend (The group is really just pretending to be Big Star — White is Alex Chilton to Brendan Benson’s Chris Bell.) More worrisome is the sense of fatigue that was already creeping into the Stripes’ recent offerings, and now White is faced with yet another vehicle competing for his increasingly scant best material. The Stripes’ latest record, “Icky Thump,” bears out fans’ worst fears as it’s thoroughly weakened by these problems and more.

Signs of burnout are clearly audible throughout “Icky Thump.” This disc takes the familiar White Stripes formula and introduces some new crushing riffs, loveably unorthodox arrangements and jive-y vocal stylings, but doesn’t conclude with any better songs.

Few artists have the reservoirs to sustain multiple projects, especially when they are launched in the lagging midpoint of a career. David Bowie’s years with hard rock group Tin Machine or Blur’s Damon Albarn migration to Gorillaz and then the Good, the Bad and the Queen are ignominious examples of this folly. And then, there are compulsive songwriters like Prince or Ryan Adams who can rattle out album after album in fast succession, but they’re only searching for perfection resulting from workman-like repetition. Many of those records fill out their catalogs and can demonstrate an impressive range, but rarely better other artists’ strategy of releasing an album every two to three years. More isn’t always better in the songwriting game, and a minority of artists seems capable of restraining themselves until they have something to say.

With three White Stripes records, one Raconteurs disc and a Loretta Lynn album under his belt since 2001, White falls into both songwriter categories and thus, is his own worst enemy. Teasingly, the basic elements for great songs are present on “Icky Thump,” but White can’t quite link them together and point them in the right direction. Repeatedly, listeners swing from dull verses to incongruous guitar or keyboard passages and then back. It appears that White is referencing old patterns when he can’t connect the musical dots, which too often makes the song sound like a retread. Drummer and faux sister Meg White — always the silent and supportive partner — can do little to bolster these efforts beyond setting a consistent pace and the occasional powerhouse fill.

Volume remains the band’s go-to sonic implement. The album’s title track revs up with a grumbling, sometimes wandering clavinet part reminiscent of the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle,” but instead of reggae crooning, the track’s sense of anticipation is answered with Zeppelin-powered guitar thunder, concussive kick drumming and cymbal crashes. It’s an explosive demonstration of the group’s raw power, but doesn’t really congeal into a compelling song, especially when the clavinet returns for two squealing, computerized solos that spiral about the drumming like a bagpipe. More curious is White’s choice of subject matter — immigration — and his high-pitched, fast-talking delivery. His swift rhyming sometimes sounds like a screechy impersonation of Snoop Dogg, but never more plainly than when he boils his perspective down to gangsta terms: “White Americans! What? Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too,” he wails. “Who’s using who?/What should we do?/You can’t be a pimp and a prostitute, too!”

The blunt force continues on “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told),” which combines distorted country guitar picking, cymbal mashing and high-volume organ blasts into an unstoppable industrial process. To be heard above the guitar squall, White uses a whammy pedal to conjure a fast-paced, squeaky, squealing solo. The penultimate flaw with the track is that, beyond its loud-mouth country flavor, the track isn’t that interesting.

Perhaps hoping for different results, White again turns to the whammy pedal during key parts of a slide guitar mini-suite, “Catch Hell Blues.” The impressive guitar playing is the song’s strongest feature. White’s guitar squawking accents the glistening electric blues tutorial that makes up the bulk of the song. Vocals are minimal and intermittent, but chiefly in the form of the breakdown in “Whole Lotta Love,” in which White partners guitar flash with some Robert Plant-like cooing.

Other cuts on the album have fewer redeeming qualities. The nylon-string guitar-based “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is an underwhelming ditty that instead of organically building to a drum-circle-type climax, is shredded by White’s guitar. The fretwork decimates anything charming about the cut. By contrast, “Conquest” is immediately annoyingly. It’s a boisterous, Spanish-flavored song that is much too close in spirit to cabaret music than the Stripes should be comfortable toying with.

The record’s worst moments are when the duo unconsciously slips into self-parody. The bashing drums, metallic riffing and organ hisses of “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” are so perfectly at home with the White Stripes’ cache that its seems an unsettlingly obvious rehash. By contrast, “Little Cream Soda” is a patchwork of unfinished ideas. The track is one-sided guitar rumble that slides easily between disparate licks and riffs, but they never tie together in an effective way.

The unplugged approach continues when, in classic White Stripes fashion, “Icky Thump” closes with a screwy acoustic track. “Effect And Cause” is a country strummer that might have found a home on “Van Lear Rose,” White’s collaboration with Loretta Lynn a few years ago. Beyond its Nashville-bent, the carefree song truly stands out amongst the disc’s other tracks in that it has an identifiable melody that comes from White’s creaky-sounding voice and his shallow acoustic guitar playing. Some goofy, lyrical twists keep the chord progression fresh. A better production and maybe a saloon piano could actually make this track something White or even Lynn could have made their own.

Like a song tailored for a particular artist, the White Stripes’ rigid sonic identity exacerbates the failings that make “Icky Thump” the shallow effort that it is. Having explored this sound over a handful of albums and then expanded into a new musical terrain with the Raconteurs, White now appears to be struggling with writing music based on such obscure rules, rules that were once so lucrative and productive.

The new record proves that White has lost perspective on what constitutes a good song — it’s more than just a novel idea or following a formula. He likely just needs time to regroup and longer space between projects. He must learn to become patient or more discerning. The consequences of not doing so are to sink all of his ambitions. It would be another mistake.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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