In today’s first installment of McNutt Against the Music’s “White Stripes Nova Scotia Invasion 2007” coverage, we review the band’s latest album.
With the release of the White Stripes’ sixth album last month – their first on a major label – Adam Radwanski over at Maclean’s Magazine’s Taste Police blog made the case for the Stripes as one of rock and roll’s biggest success stories. Writes Radwanski, “it’s hard to think of many post-Beatles precedents for marrying mainstream success with critical adoration this long. U2 up to and including Achtung Baby springs to mind, but after that…I’m stumped. If you don’t break up your band or shoot yourself in the head, you’re pretty much destined to turn off someone or other.”
Frankly, I’ve always been a little perplexed by the mainstream success that the Stripes have earned. It made sense back in 2003, when they rode the “garage rock” bandwagon to national consciousness – they were part of a trend. But when was the last time that you saw the Strokes or the Hives or the Vines debut with the number two album on the Billboard charts? I mean, don’t people realize that the White Stripes a weird little band? Have they even listened to Elephant or Get Behind Me Satan beyond the singles?
Perhaps I’m hitting at the dual secret to the Stripes’ success. On the one hand, they’ve spent the past five years releasing a series of kick-ass singles, while at the same time almost single-handedly saving the music video from irrelevance (with a little help from Michel Gondry, of course). But on the other hand, instead of running away from their idiosyncrasies like most bands do over time, they’ve actually embraced them. With a philosophy of minimalism driving their mindset – sonically and aesthetically – the band has continued to throw avant-garde blues tracks, spoken word interludes, semi-obscure covers and piano ballads into the mix while rarely sounding indulgent or frivolous.
Icky Thump holds as true to the Stripes tradition as ever while simultaneously bringing more elements into the minimalist mix. “Conquest,” their cover of a Patti Page song from the 1950s, uses mariachi horns to ramp up the band’s aggressive two-piece sonic assault to even greater intensity. Then there’s “Pricky Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and its spoken-word follow-up “St. Andrew” that throw bagpipes into the equation. But the reason that Icky Thump has been much better received than the similarly-bizarre Get Behind Me Satan is that these additions seem to draw less attention to themselves; in fact, they feel right at home.
It also helps matters that Icky Thump might be the most consistently solid set of songs that the Stripes have put together since their breakthrough with White Blood Cells. I’m not sure whether I can credit Jack White’s time with the Raconteurs for it, but the band seems much fresher here, more invigorated than they did on their last two records. Even the more traditional tracks like “Bone Broke” or the incredibly catchy second single “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” have a raw edge to them that suggest a band with creative energy to burn and enthusiasm and passion to spare.
It certainly rocks, that’s for sure. You’ve all heard the title track, a raw Zeppelin-edged track with keyboard riffs that sound ready to explode at any given second. But there’s also the snake oil rock of “Rag & Bone,” with Jack and Meg role-playing as pawn shop salespeople, as well as the blisteringly-raw “Catch Hell Blues.” But my personal favourite is the album’s closer, “Effect & Cause,” where Jack White embraces his country side and writes a delicious little acoustic ditty as universal as anything they’ve ever done.
If there’s a criticism to be had, it’s this – there’s very little here that’s genuinely surprising or different from what the band has done in the past. This is a White Stripes album through and through, and if you’ve yet to become a fan of the band’s militantly minimalist rock thus far, there’s not much on Icky Thump that could convince you to change your mind.
Which brings me back to Radwanski’s article from the Taste Police. He writes at his conclusion, “At the risk of sounding like an NME cover, it’s probably worth considering just where among the all-time great bands the Stripes now stand. If you think that’s hyperbole, name some more bands that have come anywhere close to this sort of sustained run.”
This poses some interesting questions about rock music in the modern era. What does it say that arguably the most popular “alternative” band of our era has achieved their success with a clearly-defined and barely-changing formula? Does a band that takes risks and changes their sound while alienating mainstream audiences in the process (Radiohead jump to mind) deserve more or less praise than a band who stays popular but evolves only slightly? Does mass appeal even mean anything in the decentralized Internet-driven music marketplace?
Big questions. I’d answering them, but I’m afraid that Icky Thump is just too damn awesome to worry about them right now. Less talk, more rock.