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Tuning in to MTV2’s Rock Countdown, I don’t see how anyone could think we’re not in a golden age. It simply happens to be of something it’s not worth having a golden age of. Just about the only change of scenery in the procession of gesticulating aggro boys comes from the White Stripes. “Fell in Love With a Girl,” one of the singles from White Blood Cells, the Detroit duo’s third long-player for the gracelessly named Sympathy for the Record Industry label, is an exhilarating 1-minute-50-second blast of jagged garage pop. There are no turntables, no baggy shorts, no poseur rappers, no gangland hand-signs, no trick facial hair, no scooped death tone, no sampling keyboards, no five-string basses, and no slumming graphic designers from Pasadena—just guitar, drums, and vocals. And no band shots, either. The video’s all done in pulsating waves of animated LEGO.
It’s an appropriate medium for an outfit that named its second disc De Stijl, after the Dutch modernist movement that fractured over the introduction of diagonal lines. There are no diagonals in LEGO, just as there are none in the blocky lo-res graphics of early video games such as Breakout, a version of which has been commissioned by the band and is available online.
Image-breaking or music-making, the White Stripes define themselves by what they don’t do. Frontman Jack White told Spin.com that White Blood Cells intentionally lacked the blues tunes, cover songs, guitar soloing and slidework, and bass overdubs that characterized De Stijl and the twosome’s eponymous debut. And when the guitarist, singer, and occasional electric pianist joined drummer and very occasional vocalist Meg White (his sister or ex-wife, depending on which genesis myth you get a hold of) for a 30-song set at the 9:30 Club Monday night, a different roster of strictures governed the proceedings: Everything except the bass lines was back in force, but vocal intelligibility was under dire threat. Eighth notes were similarly endangered.
Jack played plenty of them, but Meg parceled them out as if she wouldn’t get any more before next payday. Lou Reed once said that, as far as he was concerned, there were two kinds of drummers: the guys who know all the technical stuff and Maureen. Well, as far as Meg is concerned, Maureen was one of the technical guys. Hell, Shaggs tubthumper Helen Wiggin was one of the technical guys.
A born primitivist who has decided to stay that way, Meg doesn’t exactly “play” her heavily miked kit; she slugs it, often in unison with the guitar. On record, the sound loses its overwhelming physicality; it often seems as though part of her rhythm line has slipped through the lo-fi cracks. Live, it becomes apparent that those parts simply don’t exist—there’s just the relentless socking of the quarter-note beat. It’s a wonder Bill Ward didn’t think of it first. Actually, he did—witness the beginning of “Iron Man”—but the asceticism required to take it to its logical conclusion never would have been available to a member of Black Sabbath.
On Monday, the Birmingham heavy-metal gods also contributed the massive descending riff of their “Electric Funeral.” With a slight rhythmic tweak and an octave leap thrown in, it drove the Stripes’ “Cannon,” a brooding stomper that interpolates “John the Revelator,” which Jack and Meg probably picked up from Son House, beneficiary of the debut album’s dedication. Their chief blues touchstone, though, is Blind Willie McTell. Jack performed a reworked “Lord, Send Me an Angel,” placing himself at the center of its narrative and transplanting it from Georgia to Detroit. Meg, clad, like her ex, in white T-shirt and red pants, slammed the kick drum and worked a red tambourine. (Even Jack’s flight cases are red-and-white; Meg’s cymbal case is red.)
According to Bob Dylan, “[N]obody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” and for making the introductions, he got his and Jacques Levy’s “Isis” into the night’s playbook. Later, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was thoroughly de-Dionned. But the most riveting cover of the evening was Dolly Parton’s minor-key foray into emotional abjection, “Jolene.” In the Whites’ hands, it seemed eons older than 1973 would make it. Who knows whether it was Carter Family-style fealty to the original lyric or an indication of things the Whites would rather leave buried, but Jack sang the song as written, taking on the persona of a woman who begs the town temptress not to trifle with her mate.
The big drawback to most songs—particularly most blues—that deal in lost love is that there isn’t any sense that what was lost was irreplaceable; there’s always another woman to shack up with the next town over. But when Jack sings about playing the field, he’s clearly shamming—not for nothing did he apologize when the lyrics required him to insert himself into the ladykilling of the closing encore singalong of “Boll Weevil.” When there’s one love at stake, as on “Jolene,” he hits home. It can’t be coincidence that both “Isis” and the Bacharach/David tune offer hopes of romantic reconciliation, the former even speaking of the possibility of remarriage.
Nearly 30 years after Loretta Lynn’s “Rated ‘X’” charted, its subject, the sexual stigma attached to a divorcee by her friends, renders it hopelessly dated. But the White Stripes think enough of the song to cover it live, with Meg taking a rare stab at sharing lead vocals, and on disc. At the 9:30, as on the “Hotel Yorba” single, it was paired with an original tune that, aside from revealing that Jack learned how to count from Country Joe & the Fish, contains a marriage proposal and forecasts of connubial bliss. Indeed, many of Jack’s own songs, from “Little Room” and “Let’s Build a Home” to “The Union Forever” and “Apple Blossom,” are obsessed with the promises, pressures, and pitfalls of wedlock, home, true love, and romantic possession. For a young guy to have marrying any more on his mind, he’d have to be a randy CCM boy-bander, pledged to his chastity until God sends him an angel.
The White Stripes are a garage-rock gimmick band in the tradition of the Count Five and the Cramps. But in a genre that usually grafts the formal excitement of raving, balls-out rock ‘n’ roll to some trivial enthusiasm such as hot rods or vampires or horror movies (which, I know, are deeply symbolic, but let’s not ask Lux Interior for a quote right now), the Stripes’ concerns are remarkably idiosyncratic. The aesthetic “purity” of a color scheme that follows utopian modernist tenets (albeit suprematist, not neoplasticist) is joined to the sweet, clear-eyed psychedelia of Starlite Mints, the swirls of which adorn the head of Meg’s bass drum, the custom Leslie cabinet that Jack made, and turntable slipmats that can be had for six bucks at the T-shirt concession.
Add the meeting of dirty love and puppy love effected by a know-it-well-enough-to-fuck-with-it respect for acoustic blues and a romantic schoolyard nostalgia that owes a debt to Ray Davies (particularly on Monday’s gently fingerpicked “We’re Going to Be Friends”)—not to mention the strange, incestuous vibe of former spouses who front as siblings—and the White Stripes have more subtext to chew on than the next thousand blues-punk primitives.
What’s truly bizarre is that none of it comes off “postmodern.” In Jack and Meg’s minds—or maybe its just Jack’s, as I’m inclined to think on those occasions when Meg chugs along like a sleepy metronome set on andante—all of these concerns fit together perfectly, simplicity, straightness, and sweetness dovetailing neatly with raw power and love for life.
And the music, particularly Jack’s singing, makes you want to believe it. It’s the vocals that hold the White Stripes’ songs together—not the guitar, which is there to shake some action, and not the drums, which are there to beat you up and make you like it. At the 9:30, words were frequently all but disguised, stretched near the breaking point, shot into the high reaches of Jack’s range, chopped up with vibrato, and twisted into unintelligible chatters and shrieks.
Jack’s vocal brinkmanship broke down only once, on the Citizen Kane homage “The Union Forever,” which appeared two-thirds of the way through the set, once he’d gotten a bit winded. The rest of the time, he sustained a Herculean outpouring of energy, beating spasmodically against the bars Meg unflappably laid down. It was an effective piece of sleight-of-heart: Amp up the histrionics and kick out the jams until no one suspects you mean every bit. CP