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The White Stripes - Icky Thump

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Artist: The White Stripes

Album: Icky Thump

Label: Warner Brothers

Review date: Jun. 18, 2007

For all the vintage equipment and traditional forms, the most retro thing about the White Stripes is not their sound. The loudness is so percussive it could only come from a time where hip-hop is the guiding mode of pop. Jack White's love of faulty wiring is basically post-Sonic Youth distortion. The artificial bass notes require digital effects. No, the most retro thing about the White Stripes is that they're rockstars.

Looking back at the millionaire musicians of the 1970s who defined the notion, a rockstar is the product of a three-way deal between the artist, fan and record label. The label needs to believe that some nut kid deserves to be let loose in the studio, and the results, however eccentric, are worth promoting. The fans have to buy in to publicity, adore the eccentricities, and take it all too seriously. The kid needs to believe the hype from both sides, swagger around and top himself, outdoing the auspiciousness that got him noticed.

That three-way collision hasn't happened much in the last 20 years. It's the musicians who've been reluctant. The few who've gotten the corporate leeway and adoring fans, like U2, Metallica and Radiohead, have a puritanical streak. Even when they claim to be getting back to basics, they're not much fun. It's an exercise in being primal, not an outburst. Acts like Nirvana and Fugazi had the anthems and contrary nature to run a strong campaign. Nominated, they refused to run. Guns 'n' Roses and Soundgarden had the chops, the pop hits and the arrogance. But after they hit the big time, they couldn't come up with much.

Icky Thump is Jack White's third album composed while huffing off his own fog machine. The garage punker who eats old records and sweats two-minute bursts is long gone. He has been supplanted by a dude who dates movie stars and punches out opening acts and addresses the fans as "Oh children..." And writes great songs. Maybe a prick, but to read accounts of Townshend or Bowie in their prime, maybe not the biggest prick to ever headline a hockey rink. No one else is working in the same territory these days, strutting around on TV, Thor's hammer on a shoulder strap, attempting to say something deep about immigration while singing about a half-blind Mexican prostitute.

That's the lead song, single and title track, and it's hard to imagine the White Stripes coming up with a more perfect song at this stage in their run. Garage simplicity is swept aside by keyboard noodling. Jack diddles up and down an electric organ as pointlessly as Keith Emerson, save a few bars where it coalesces into a fake-classical fanfare. There's a gratuitous bridge lifted from Yes. But the basics of their appeal is intact: a plain beat matched to a hard chord, Jack screeching like Plant and Page, the rapport of a four-piece accomplished by just two people. It's a weird song, as pretentious as it is rocking. They make prog sound outrageous again, and they didn't even need to put on silver lamé capes. The closer you listen, the weirder it gets. No other radio song this year is going to pit slop guitar against purring plastic organ.

The first half of Icky Thump has plenty more indulgences. A Celtic ballad morphs into backward tapes and spoken-word in a child's voice, something about Scottish nationalism. "Conquest" is loaded up with bullfight trumpets. The lyric is a tightly drawn fable about a macho man. But it's still kinda dumb. "You Don't Know What Love Is" flirts close to power ballad, borrowing from "Hey, Hey What Can I Do", or that "Signs" song that Tesla covered, or whatever. It's a better song than what it's drawing on; when he puts together these mid-tempo dramas, there's deja vu, like he's uncovered a lost FM staple. It's easy to dissect why it sounds familiar – a southern rock trill here, a change from British folk rock there, some sappiness taken from a longhair ballad. Like an A-list remake of a B movie, it is better paced and rendered with more commitment.

The second half of the album is all growling rock, the kind that got them noticed in the first place. The songs are built around some of the moodiest riffs he's ever come up with. There's keyboard for atmosphere, but it's all guitar driven. The surest sign that fame has added to White's swagger comes in how much jive talking he does now. The Stripes music has remained mostly simple, but his words keep getting denser, two rhymes per line, three rhyming lines in a row, voodoo inflection. The chitlin' circuit banter that drives "Rag and Bone" should be hokey, if not completely embarrassing. It ain't. Its rap and beat boogie so hard that it shakes off the superficial resemblance to chili contest blues. Same for heavy-lidded Chess Records "oh well, oh well" he interjects throughout "Ice Cream Soda." He sounds like he's paid his dues.

Has he? Is this the White Stripes’ best record? It would be really hard to argue that it's their worst. Are they skilled recyclers or originals? Are they genuine diamond-ass trouble or rhinestone cowboys? Is there insight in these lyrics or merely snazz? They've put out six strong albums, consecutively. And without a pause, they've expanded their range without losing sight of their limits. That kind of expertise requires modesty somewhere. Thankfully, they don't stick it in their music.

By Ben Donnelly

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