Jack and Meg circle back to riveting classic rock and carny-bark
Whether you fall for the color-coded dictums of the brother/sister (or husband/wife or guitar/drums) dichotomy of The White Stripes, you have to admire how, with each album, the pair—rock’s last great formalists—earnestly craft aesthetic handcuffs and promptly wriggle out of them, Harry Houdini-style.
Early on, taking cues from ’90s purveyors of stripped-down blues like Jon Spencer and ’68 Comeback, the Stripes did them one better, whittling it all to just guitar and drums. On their sophomore album, De Stijl, they drew lines akin to that austere Belgian art movement, then colored outside the box with snatches of violin. The mere introduction of a bass line (Elephant’s “Seven Nation Army”) became revelatory. Only in the band’s peppermint-colored world could the expansion of their instrumental palette (emphasizing piano and marimba) on Get Behind Me Satan result in their most sparse work to date.
For their first record on Warner Bros., following the dissolution of V2, Icky Thump makes corrections to Satan's acute tenets. As opposed to that previous album’s willfully quick turnaround, Thump is the longest the White Stripes have ever incubated a record. The piano that tethered Satan has been abandoned, and while there is still no computer in sight, the band recorded at a modern studio for once.
The first thing to thwack you on Icky Thump is the duo’s return to the overdriven guitar-rock of White Blood Cells and Elephant. Jack White’s Jimmy Page idolatry has never been in question, even when he’s remained content to eschew a Bonham counterpart, tying himself instead to Meg’s big-hearted—if slightly arrhythmic—pace-making. Through-out, Thump accentuates Jack’s slide-based shredding, quicksilver-fast and shrill, to where the solos become the main attraction.
Curiously, Jack also indulges his inner John Paul Jones this go-’round. “Icky Thump” whizzes to life on the same analog synthesizer that powered legendary producer Joe Meek’s “Telstar.” The ancient device wheezes and wiggles between White’s screechiest guitar solo to date, as well as his most political statement: “White Americans, what, nothing better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant, too,” he vehemently exhorts. He then exchanges the synth for a Hammond organ on “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and the ragged rock of “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told).”
Such new instrumentation still doesn’t prepare for the shocking conquistador take on the old Patti Page chestnut, “Conquest.” Echoing Jack’s recent penchant for mariachi threads, and expanding on that flamenco figure from White Blood Cells’ “I Think I Smell a Rat,” he trades piercing trills with a trumpet; it’s easily the most bombastic, jaw-clenching White Stripes song to date. And while the Stripes have been known to indulge in all sorts of roots music, from old blues to country & western, Icky Thump finds the duo indulging in the red and white of the Scottish highlands. “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrew (This Battle is in the Air)” are based around the pneumatic bleat of the bagpipes, courtesy of Jim Drury.
Such arty, at times enervating, digressions highlight Icky Thump’s curious weight; whereas Elephant’s dinosaur-rock stomp got cut with fragile acoustic turns, there is little reprieve here. Even songs that begin low-key, like “Catch Hell Blues” or “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” soon go for overdrive. And what space does open up gets quickly paved over by Jack’s verbiage. Lest you presume Jack is listening to 21st century hip-hop, his palaver rings more as turn-of-the-century carny-bark and snake-oil sales pitch.
This “effect and cause” look is most evident on the meager boogie of “Rag and Bone.” Here Jack and Meg take on that old trade of collecting junk for a living, elevating it to a noble profession. For all of their antiquated appreciation—pining for telephone operators and Blind Willie McTell—it’s the most open airing of The White Stripes’ modus operandi to date: “Things you don’t want … we can do something with them. We’ll make something out of them. Make some money at least.” Such turn-of-the-century flotsam proves incalculably dear in The White Stripes’ artistic economy.