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The White Stripes - Icky Thump Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    6
released:    2007
label:    Interscope
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageGiven that so much of an artist’s greatness is proportional to his or her ability to reinvent and re-imagine their art for new eras and listeners, the White Stripes are a puzzling proposition. Designed specifically with limitations that ensure they can’t evolve too far past the guitar and drum set-up that Jack White relies on to keep his music free of entanglements, they are in a particularly unenviable position where they have consistently to invent new ways to rearrange rudiments and reassert the primacy of a guitar riff. Thus far, they’ve gone farther than anyone could have expected when 2001’s White Blood Cells made them the leading lights of a new guitar-rock revival, but recent years have shown signs of wear. From the marimba experiments of 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan to his foray with four-piece rock group the Raconteurs, Jack White seemed to be tiring from his self-imposed restraints. Have the White Stripes simply run out of new track to explore?

With Icky Thump, the results are mixed, but White shows he’s not going to go down without a fight. Arming himself with the most oversized guitar riffs since “Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” established him as his generation’s pre-eminent garage rock tunesmith, he might not have the vigor of youth anymore but he does have the swagger of experience. Having laid dormant for two albums, his Led Zeppelin fixation roars back to life with the whiplash guitar lines, chainsaw synth gurgles and death knell drum thuds of the title track, with White’s sing-speak vocals evoking Robert Plant’s faux-blues swagger. And though he admits to detesting the commingling of politics and rock music, the track provides the most obvious moment of social commentary to appear on any White Stripes release. “White Americans, what?/Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out/you’re an immigrant, too,” he snarls. “Who’s using who?/What should we do?/Well, you can’t be a pimp/and a prostitute, too.” Without naming names, it’s the rare political statement that succeeds because of the cleverness of the writing and not the shrillness of its tone or the magnitude of its implications.
Though he has generally been overrated as a guitarist since Rolling Stone listed him as the 17th best on their much-criticized list of the 100 greatest guitarists who ever lived, White actually shows off a little technique here. Where he’d previously been notable for his ability to play monstrously engaging riffs, here his playing emphasizes flailing and often atonal solos, with shards of feedback and dissonance giving his playing a frenzied energy. These solos turn up over and over and often in unexpected places, from the lighting blast that cuts “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” in half, to the grinding power tool distortion of “St. Andrew (This Battle is in the Air).” He even shows off some serious slide guitar technique on the foreboding “Catch Hell Blues,” his screeching riffs wailing up and down the fret board and saving an otherwise mediocre entry.

Still, White’s return to riff-rock isn’t monolithic in tone, and the best tracks on the album are those where he continues to develop as a craftsman. Taking a decidedly Dylan-esque turn, “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” marries plaintive electric piano and softly strummed acoustic guitars with shrieking feedback, with White issuing weary symbolist poetry like Dylan circa1966. Anyone who heard White’s contributions to the Cold Mountain soundtrack knows that he has a taste for Appalachian and Celtic music, but the droning bagpipes and mandolins of “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” still come as a welcome surprise, as White fully adopts the melodic patois and imagery of the folk rudiments and emerges with something uniquely his own. Less surprising is “A Martyr for My Love for You,” a track that will sound vaguely familiar to anyone who has heard the band’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” as the track apes that song’s ominous atmosphere, minor chord acoustic guitar picking and desperately doomed narrative. Still, as a tensely building classic rock anthem, it ranks as one of White’s best theatrical performances as a songwriter. Having fully grown into his persona, White no longer sounds awkward shifting into different narrative poses, here displaying the skills needed to believably inhabit the cast of characters at his disposal.

Despite the general consistency of the album, it’s also the first White Stripes album to have a few genuinely awful tracks. Though you have to admire his willingness to bring in a mariachi band and Mexican swagger for “Conquest,” White’s weakness for show tune fluff reaches an obnoxious peak with his bellowing recitation of the song’s title, sounding like a misguided satire of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition.” Similarly slight is the stripped-down country strumming of “Effect and Cause,” a misfire where White takes his fixation with Loretta Lynn to the point of mimicry, with predictable chord progressions and silly rejoinders falling flat. Far more biting is “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told),” but the song’s bland Southern rock formula of rich organ and double-tracked guitars make the song one of the least interesting entries in their catalogue.

Ultimately, Icky Thump lacks both the song-by-song consistency of White Blood Cells and the experimental edge of Get Behind Me Satan, but still ranks as an unmitigated triumph for a band that five years ago seemed too hemmed in by their concept to possibly still be creatively viable at the five-album mark. That said, the original guitar-and-drums pretense is little more than a historical gimmick at this point, as very few of these songs capture the spirit of Jack and Meg bashing out tunes together in a room. That much was inevitable, of course, for any band that doesn’t want to be so married to their ideal that they turn into the Ramones, frozen in time and ready to be thawed out with any of their equally representative albums. And while he may have compromised his original vision, Jack White is a better and more eclectic artist for it, a songwriter quickly climbing into the canon of the great American craftsmen.

Like all White Stripes albums, Icky Thump has few of the signposts of modern technology, with guitars, drums and vocals all pushed extraordinarily high in the mix for maximum punch. As such, the mixes favor dense textures and heavy reverb, and multiple listens are needed to pick apart the layers of guitars and vocals in the mix. But just as it worked for Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, it works for the White Stripes, and the fuzzy mixes and vintage production techniques produce an album that sounds utterly massive at high volumes and reveals nuance with better equipment.

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