Between Meg’s anxiety problems and Jack’s obsession with side projects, the chances did not look good for a follow-up to the White Stripes’ 2007 effort, Icky Thump. Luckily, the ex- husband-and-wife duo has defied the odds yet again and headed into the studio to record “a couple of new songs.” In anticipation of the album’s rumored 2010 release, 20 Watts decided to take a look back at these influential garage-rockers and their unpredictable career.
Elephant represents the most significant moment in the history of The White Stripes – the point at which the band stopped being mere indie heroes and graduated to bona fide stardom. A more diverse and grandiose album than anything they’d done to that point, the album showcases The White Stripes in total command of their art – from the rocking hit single “Seven Nation Army” to the eerie “In the Cold Cold Night” or the excellent jam of “Ball and Biscuit.” But more than diversity or clarity of vision, Elephant has a timeless quality allowing it to sound just as fresh today as in 2003. It’s truly The White Stripes at their finest hour and one of the best pure rock albums you’ll ever hear.
The White Stripes’ sophomore effort De Stijl marks a huge step-up in quality from the band’s debut. The lo-fi production value is still there, but instead of focusing on their punk and blues influences, Jack and Meg take a firm step toward establishing their unique garage rock sound. Some songs sound a bit funky (“Hello Operator”), while others will remind listeners of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic excursions (“I’m Bound to Pack It Up”). But after the mediocrity of their debut, De Stijl is a pleasant, coherent surprise. A sophomore slump it most certainly is not.
Admit it: Icky Thump’s chaotic lead single took a bit of getting used to, but the album as a whole was more immediately rewarding. Songs like “You Don’t Know What Love Is, You Just Do What You’re Told” and “Rag and Bone” recall the straightaway rock ‘n’ roll of Elephant. At the same time, The White Stripes also managed to evolve the experimental side they’d forged on Get Behind Me Satan by channeling it into their established sound. “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” combines Jack White’s blues-oriented past with his newfound love of acoustic instrumentation. The result? A rewarding and diverse listening experience.
Get Behind Me Satan
The White Stripes went in a different direction after the near-universal acclaim for 2003’s Elephant. Instead of releasing another pure rock record, they gave us Get Behind Me Satan, which features bluegrass tracks (“Little Ghost”) and even marimba numbers (“The Nurse”). Another noticeable addition is the frequent use of piano in songs like singles “The Denial Twist” and “My Doorbell.” No matter which genre they’re dabbling in, Jack and Meg seem in their element. Get Behind Me Satan may not be the band’s best album, but in terms of their sonic evolution, it’s certainly the most important.
White Blood Cells
The sum of White Blood Cells’ individual parts is greater than the album as a whole. The White Stripes’ third album broke them into the mainstream with the strength of its infectious singles “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” but at the same time, the sludgy-sounding “Aluminum” and the haunting “The Union Forever” just seemed out of place. After the band’s vast improvement on De Stijl, it’s hard not to consider White Blood Cells a step back. It’s every bit as raw and under-produced, but it’s just not as consistent as it’s predecessor.
The White Stripes
The White Stripes’ first album is easily their rawest, with a stripped-down, DIY production style that echoes the band’s Detroit origins. Unfortunately, The White Stripes hadn’t yet reached the level of songwriting they’d achieve on future releases. Here, Jack White’s equal-parts-emulation-and-experimentation approach to songwriting leans more toward emulation, focusing mainly on vintage blues and punk. The occasional gem does sneak through, both in the upbeat chaos of “Broken Bricks” and the mellow, bluesy comedown of “Do.” But mostly, the album seems to lack a clear direction.
— Dan Kaplan