Saturday, October 24, 2009

Not quite sibling rivalry - The White Stripes and "Elephant"

Today, several weeks after Scott recommended I buy it and Patrick recommended I listen to it, I have finally sat down and given a proper hearing to The White Stripes album Elephant.

Before getting into the music itself, I thought I’d just spend a few lines on the gossip. I constantly read stuff about The White Stripes as a sibling duo – Jack and Meg White – which does lend a kind of rebellious young person’s cuteness to their music. But I have in fact discovered through a little bit more research that they are actually not siblings at all, but ex-husband-and-wife. Jack White used to be John Gillis, but married Megan White and took her name. They divorced in 2000, but continued to work together, more than happy to be promoted as a sibling duo rather than as a divorced duo.

I guess it’s a bit of a whacky story – but who cares, when they come up with such great bluesy rock, always with a slightly irreverent, mischievous edge to it, laced with bits of acidic anger here, bits of juvenile humour there, and always doused in music that is gutsy, fun and clever all at once. It’s music that comes to you from the garage – but a well-equipped garage that only admits people who have got talent and who know how to have fun expressing it.

You get the first taste of what The White Stripes can do on the very first line of the very first song, ‘Seven Nation Army’, with its funky bluesy bass line (actually played on an semi-acoustic guitar, through an octave pedal), riffing away through the whole track, giving a base and a shape to everything else.

It’s a song that is fed up with everyone and everything – a song that tears itself away from people’s indulgence in themselves (“Don’t want to hear about it/Every single one’s got a story to tell/Everyone knows about it/From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell”).

That, in one way or another, is what most of this album is about – people losing touch with one another, forgetting the innocent splendour of love and then finding, in its place, resentment, things that niggle, and loneliness, like in the grumpy lines of ‘There’s no home for you here’: “Waking up for breakfast/burning matches/Talking quickly/Breaking baubles/Throwing garbage/Drinking soda/Looking happy/Taking pictures/So completely stupid/Just go away”.

But the bitterness is mixed in with reminders of what has been lost, too, like Meg White’s bluesy and seductive ‘In the cold, cold Night’; and with yearnings to find it, like Jack’s sadly cute plea to be accepted in ‘I want to be the boy to warm your mother’s heart’.

There’s a fantastic cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’, giving the song an intestinal fortitude it has always needed, full of the sort of bile that anyone would surely feel in the circumstances.

'Ball and biscuit' is probably the grungiest song on the album, a song about quick and hard sex, with awesome blues guitar riffs adding to the sleaze.

There’s the tongue-in-cheek cuteness of ‘Little Acorns’, where Jack’s sweet little squirrel Ow-ows are howled back at him by a blood and sweat drenched electric guitar. There’s the rough sarcasm of ‘Girl, you have no faith in medicine’, to rough blues guitar, Jack’s rough vocals and Meg’s rough drums.

It’d be a great finish, but Elephant in fact finishes with ‘Well it’s true that we love one another’ – a happy poke-fun-at-love duet with Jack White and Holly Golightly and with Meg throwing in a line of cynical commentary here and there, managing somehow to sum up the flavour of the whole album just as charmingly as the open track did aggressively.

While there is probably something a bit affected about the White Stripes’ pretence of being siblings, there is nothing in the least bit affected about their music. Elephant takes everything that is good from blues, garage rock and punk, puts it into the blender and produces a fantastically original cocktail that will be sure to get you drunk – not just because its alcohol content is, I suspect, dangerously high, but because you just won’t be able to stop lapping it up.


  1. I'm glad you liked it! I think that 'Elephant' is almost the definitive White Stripes album. Their more recent 'Icky Thump'(2007) is much less edgy; and on the YouTube videos of some live performances, they're decidedly self-indulgent.

    In my browsing, I came across a recent (2009?) CD on which Jack White collaborates with some blues musicians, but I can't remember where I found it and a quick search of iTunes was fruitless. It was OK, but a bit desperate, I thought.

  2. Nevertheless, Patrick, almost enough to qualify as a recommendation. I'll see what I can find!!