Garage Days Revisited
Taking Another Look at the White Stripes

I hate the White Stripes.

If you know me, you know that’s just something I take for granted, like saying George Bush is evil, or Coke with Lime is the best drink ever. Simple truths, certain in the unshakeable opinions and impressions that have formed them. I hate the White Stripes. I hate Jack White in his stupid hats with his stupid goatee, I hate his sister-slash-girfriend-slash-who-gives-a-shit Meg White, with her vacuous look and elementary skin-pounding. I hate the two of them together, with their red and white color scheme and their unwillingness to get off my television.

But perhaps I’m just feeling a little more reflective as I get older. I never used to do this, form such adamant opinions without fully exploring the band in question. And I take other people to task for doing the same thing – rejecting bands I love because one word in one song put them off, or because they don’t hear them on the radio enough. I’ve given bands far less acclaimed than the White Stripes chance after chance to impress me, but as of this morning, I’d only heard three full songs by Jack and Meg more than once. Still, I felt like I had the right to express venomous hatred towards them.

And that’s just not right.

I’ve never really given them a chance, which many of their fans will delight in telling me. I first heard them when most everyone else did – when “Fell in Love With a Girl” became obscenely popular in the midst of the garage band revival. I didn’t like the song, and I didn’t understand the acclaim, so I never bought White Blood Cells. Same with Elephant – I heard “Seven Nation Army,” didn’t like it, and never heard the record. This happens a lot – I didn’t like the Backstreet Boys singles, either, so I didn’t bother buying those albums. I don’t feel guilty about that.

The Whites scored the apathy hat trick with me when “Blue Orchid” hit the airwaves. I didn’t like it, so I haven’t bought Get Behind Me Satan, despite dozens of four-star reviews. I did give a cursory listen in the record store, but let’s be honest – “cursory” is a kind way of putting it. I skipped around, hearing the first few seconds of five or six tracks, and nothing reached out and grabbed me. But honestly, what was I expecting? I have been dismissive and judgmental, no question. If there’s a reason for all the acclaim the Stripes get, I’m not going to hear it by intro-scanning around one of their records. I need to immerse myself in the White Stripes.

Of course, the prospect of that is akin to eye surgery for me. The Stripes have five albums, totaling more than three and a half hours. This would be an endurance test, but a good one, one that challenged my assumptions and exposed me to new sounds. Perhaps it would enlighten me regarding the endless oceans of hype that surround this band – are all the four-star reviews wrong? Are they right? Could they be? Could the band that wrote “Fell in Love With a Girl” actually make a four-star album (or three)? What are these people talking about?

Here’s where my faithful friend and correspondent Erin Kennedy comes in. Erin lives just outside of Detroit, and for the year and a half I’ve known her, she’s been positively evangelical about the White Stripes. I’ve been amusingly puzzled by the fact that, despite being a Stripes fan, she has otherwise excellent musical taste. The question, then: what is she hearing in this band that I’m not? So, at my request, Erin burned the five Stripes albums for me. She noted that I “seem to have already made my mind up,” of course, but she did it anyway. I promised to listen with an open mind, and admit I was wrong if I ended up liking the CDs.

Anyway, here goes. I’m writing this real-time, as I listen to the Stripes records, one right after the other. Perhaps not how they were intended to be heard, but I’m on a tight deadline – I have a week-long music festival to get ready for, and no time to wait for new releases on Tuesday. It’s Jack and Meg or nothing. Who the hell will be interested in reading this, I’m not sure, but here’s a peek inside my head as I give the White Stripes the old college try.

* * * * *

I am nearly done with the self-titled debut – I wrote the above while listening to it. I was sort of surprised to learn that they had two unheralded releases before White Blood Cells, which tells you how little I know about the band. Anyway, I’m impressed – the thing lumbered to life with “Jimmy the Exploder,” and has lurched forward on monumental blues riffs ever since. This can’t be the same band – “Fell in Love With a Girl” represents a huge downslide from this record. Their version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down” is a monster, and the dirty blues of “Suzy Lee” works well.

There’s an energy here that I feel like I’m hearing for the first time, too. They sound like a garage band warming up while they wait for their bassist to arrive, true, but Meg obviously comes from the John Bonham school of drum-mauling – quarter notes as hard as you can, with both hands – and Jack can really play those old blues progressions. His voice is, to put it kindly, unhinged – he sometimes sounds like he’s just escaped from Bellevue, but it works in this setting. The whole record is badly produced, full of tape hiss and amplifier hum, and all it would need is pops and crackles to sound like an old 78.

Nothing here is groundbreaking, or worth the hype, but it is enjoyable. Jack slips into the old spiritual “John the Revelator” on “Cannon,” he does a fine job with Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” and he acquits himself pretty well on piano on “St. James Infirmary.” The whole thing is like an old-time blues rock band just waking up. Needless to say, I like this one. So far, so not bad… on to De Stijl.

* * * * *

The second Stripes album has a Dutch name, De Stijl, which means “the style.” It doesn’t start too well – “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” is depressingly boring, but “Hello Operator” has the energy of the debut. Still, already, something’s missing, and I don’t know what it is. It could be that the budget obviously has gone up. I don’t know.

Whenever I ask someone why they like the White Stripes, I always hear the same word: “minimalist.” It’s true, so far – Jack plays the bluesy riffs on guitar while Meg bangs the drums, and that’s it. I just wonder when minimalism became a virtue, when spending a weekend on your album became a goal. I’m having a difficult time thinking of these finished White Stripes recordings as anything other than demos, because that’s how they sound. They’re incomplete.

And that’s probably just me. I don’t consider Led Zeppelin II to be incomplete, but it’s just as raw and unpolished. (I have to stop here and say that “Little Bird” is undoubtedly the best thing I have heard so far, all slide guitar and kickass riffs. Really cool.) I wonder if these songs would work as well with full production, and I don’t mean glossy shine, but just a full sound that doesn’t feel like it was recorded live with a four-track. Just based on the first two albums, they probably wouldn’t – the moments of fullness, like the piano on “Apple Blossom,” are pleasant surprises because they contrast with the loud, sloppy remainder. (And oh yeah, the tape hiss is back in full effect. Maybe the budget didn’t go up that much…)

There’s what sounds like a violin on “I’m Bound to Pack it Up,” but without liner notes, I can’t be sure. I’m on song five, and no two songs sound the same – a far cry from the numbing sameness I was expecting. Again, this sounds like a different band than the one I profess to hate. I’m on their run through Son House’s “Death Letter” now, and it’s also pretty cool, though after two songs full of other sounds, the guitar-drums thing does feel a little limited here. I think I like Jack best when he’s playing slide. He’s a really hot bar blues player.

“Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” really reinforces my point. It’s a decent little song, with a cool lead guitar line and some pounding piano, but the recording is slipshod. Meg loses the beat a couple of times (which is nothing new for her), and the whole thing sounds like a demo. A simpler, bluesier song like “A Boy’s Best Friend” works better, because you can’t imagine a fuller, better-sounding version. But “Truth” is trying to be an ornate pop song, and it’s not working. De Stijl is crumbling a bit near the end – it doesn’t sustain the unflaggable energy of the first one.

Jack and Meg get back to bluesy business by the finale (“Let’s Build a Home” rocks), but it’s clear this is their sophomore slump. There are things I admire about De Stijl, especially in the first half, but the core sound is straining already. Which doesn’t bode well for White Blood Cells, as it contains at least one song I know I can’t stand.

* * * * *

The third album starts like Black Sabbath, moves into the Byrds and then lands on down-home hootenanny rock. That’s just the first couple songs. The variety doesn’t necessarily mean I like the songs – “Hotel Yorba” sounds like the soundtrack to a night of cow-tipping and sodomy. Already the simple songs have gotten simpler, and three songs in, the blues influence (my favorite part of the Stripes sound thus far) is all but absent. The best thing about “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman” is its title – the song is classic rock of the easiest kind. And “Fell in Love With a Girl” is next.

Yep, I still hate it. Thankfully it’s less than two minutes long. The interesting thing to me, now that I can contextualize “Fell in Love With a Girl,” is that the Stripes got caught up in the garage band thing when they, at least to this point, had little in common with it. “Fell in Love” is an anomaly – a rushed-together (well, more than usual) burst of simple-minded punk. It sounds like an afterthought, especially in contrast with the first two albums.

But White Blood Cells is continuing in the straight-ahead rock vein, instead of the bluesy one. Half of the first side is filler, the other half is uninspired. There is another song I know – “We’re Going to Be Friends,” which was in a commercial, I think. I had no idea this little ditty was the White Stripes, but it wouldn’t have convinced me to check them out if I had. “Offend in Every Way” is the first song here I really like, and it’s at track 10. I like it mostly for the always-moving guitar line.

Jack and Meg got their shit together by the finale – the drama of “I Think I Smell a Rat,” the actual chorus and harmonies on “I Can’t Wait,” the blues lament of “I Can Learn.” In the end, though, White Blood Cells has too much filler, and too much bland rock. When the Stripes play that sort of thing, they sound like a second-rate Nirvana, and I have little patience for first-rate Nirvana. Most of this record sounds like Jack White pretending he can’t really play, for some reason. Odd that this is the album that started all the hoopla, because it’s my least favorite of the three so far.

* * * * *

Elephant opens with “Seven Nation Army,” and what sounds like bass guitar. I like it a bit more than I did on first listen – the riff is kind of cool, but it is repetitive. The Stripes seem to have settled on a blues-punk sound here, but what’s striking immediately about Elephant is that it sports that fully produced sound I alluded to earlier. There’s overdubbing, vocal effects, and an overall crispness to the sound that’s like a whole new thing. The Queen harmonies on “There’s No Home For You Here” made me sit up and take notice. The song is simple, but the arrangement is surprising, especially coming from a band known for its minimalism.

They’re obviously trying everything they can to shake things up, and I admire that. I wonder if Burt Bacharach has heard their slam through his “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” Meg takes shaky lead vocals on “In the Cold, Cold Night,” a return to the bluesy stuff, complete with organ. “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” is a sweet folk song, all Jack, and it finds him reaching for a falsetto he doesn’t quite have. And “Ball and Biscuit” is kickass and bluesy, with some killer leads, but way too long.

That brings up a problem I’m having with Elephant – this one is the most restrained, energy-deficient Stripes album I’ve heard, and part of that may be that every song goes on about minute too long. The songs on the first two albums all hovered around the two minute mark, and they were all pretty much the right length. Songs on Elephant average around three and a half minutes, except for “Ball and Biscuit,” which leaps over seven. This just isn’t a band that can carry seven minutes. They need to jump in, kick ass, knock some tables over and go home in 120 seconds or less. I’m on “Little Acorns” now, and it’s interminable at four-plus minutes.

Yeah, Elephant isn’t really doing it for me. The Stripes sound caught between making a major-label studio record and trying to maintain their raw, minimalist thing. I admire some of their choices, but as a whole, this record is too long and too shaky to work. The last few tracks are good, especially “The Air Near My Fingers,” but it’s not enough to redeem the dead spots. I like about half of Elephant, and if they’d saved the half of White Blood Cells that I liked, too, and made one record out of it, I might really enjoy it.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Get Behind Me Satan, the fifth album, released earlier this month. Named after something Jesus said while being tempted, and made in two weeks – it would be easy enough to see the Satan in the title as their own escalating popularity, and this album as a big middle finger to it. I’ve been spoiled a bit, so I know to expect a departure in tone on this one, in the form of more pianos and toned percussion. And I’m glad I know that, because it opens with “Blue Orchid,” the very definition of more of the same.

But then… man, this record just takes off, in some surprising ways. “The Nurse” is off-kilter and captivating, full of marimbas and short bursts of guitar. “My Doorbell” is too much fun (at least for the first two of its four minutes), silly and piano-driven. “Forever for Her” is kind of a Meat Loaf ballad, and it takes some neat turns. “Little Ghost” is as hayseed as “Hotel Yorba,” but a lot cooler, with vocal overdubs piled atop one another until Jack and Meg sound like a revival band.

I don’t even mind that the Stripes have completely given up on their guitar-drums duo sound here, because they’ve finally broken through and found a new place to go. There’s a gospel influence here, some Prince, a little Little Feat, and a whole lot of very cool rock. The songs are just as simple as they’ve always been, but the new settings have invigorated Jack and Meg, and it was always the energy that mattered. I know I’ve only been listening for four hours, but I feel like I’ve taken this six-year journey with the band, and arrived here, and it’s not a bad place to wind up.

The most surprising moment? When “Instinct Blues” kicks in – it sounds like the bluesy, powerful stuff on the first couple of records, just what I was looking for then, but it feels so out of place on this one. This is such a strange little album, very reminiscent of early Fiery Furnaces, and even though some of the same weaknesses are here (simple songs that go on too long), the vibe is very different and much improved. I’m on the mercurial shifts that make up the chorus of “Take Take Take” now, and if the band keeps this up, this will be my favorite White Stripes album.

(Waits 12 minutes.)

And they did. The slide guitar blues of “Red Rain” is what pushed it over – ironic, because it’s the same type of song as “Instinct Blues,” except this one explodes and implodes at regular intervals, and includes a toy piano. It’s strange and compelling, probably the apex of their blues-rock stuff. The piano-vocal “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” is sweet, but almost an afterthought, and Jack still can’t rock the falsetto. But yeah, this is a really good White Stripes album.

So it worked. I quite like the first and latest records by this band – if I had been a fan from the beginning, I might have dropped off during the middle, but I’d have been right back with Get Behind Me Satan. The Stripes will never be my favorite band, and I wouldn’t award any of these albums four stars, but I can understand now what everyone’s been talking about. And who knows, I may actually buy the next one…

It’s official. I no longer completely hate the White Stripes.

* * * * *

Next week, my report from the Cornerstone festival. Big thanks to Erin Kennedy for making this week’s ramble possible.

See you in line Tuesday morning.