Icky stunt

The White Stripes keep it transitional
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 18, 2007
BUTTONED UP: Jack and Meg White.

For a band as image-conscious as the White Stripes, it’s notable how little they’ve given their fans in the way of ideology. We still get the red/white/black outfits and coy nods at the enigma of Jack and Meg White’s relationship, but any other indication of what this band is about feels predicated on ephemeral forces: the market (dig that Coca-Cola commercial and the Icky Thump USB mini-drives), Jack’s favorite new instrument, a provocative political statement.

The band’s genius lies in their ability to twist its fickle, restless nature into anticipation; along with Radiohead, the White Stripes are one of the few major bands in the world that make us sit and wonder where they’ll go next.

The duo’s monumental early-decade triptych — 2000’s De Stijl, 2001’s White Blood Cells, and 2003’s Elephant — already feels like an historic example of how a band ought to progress. A steady growth from garage-rock revivalism to arena-filling bombast, each album suggested a band that could become more polished and brash while staying true to its minimalist (electric guitar/distortion pedals/drums) ethos. That the albums were formulaic was both a given and a blessing; the band’s sound grew more forceful with each release, and Jack was tethered to a blues-stomp/anthem/cutesy-ballad format that he enhanced by balls-out exuberance, epitomized by Elephant’s seven-minute centerpiece, “Ball & Biscuit,” and its memorable opening “It’s quite possible I’m your third man, girl/But it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son.”

If Elephant felt like a band operating at peak capacity, well, maybe it was. 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan was the band’s first true departure from formula, piano-heavy, electric guitar-light, and full of percussive and genre experimentation. The album offered the predictable handful of memorable singles, but scattershot attempts at soul and freak-folk were cold and labor-intensive. Satan’s transitional nature (and the band’s still-increasing popularity) nonetheless prompted great anticipation for Icky Thump, the band’s major-label debut, on Warner Bros.

Thump is a more satisfying release than its predecessor, but it doesn’t do much to solve the riddle of where the White Stripes are headed. The title track and lead single, with its political bite (“Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too”) and guitar mangled into something between an organ and a bagpipe, is suitably epic, and “300 M.P.H. Torrential Downpour Blues” is the laid-back Delta blues track you thought the band had forgotten about. Ditto “Bone Broke”’s taut rave-up, which gives Jack’s screeching falsetto free rein.

Save “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told),” a maddeningly derivative classic rocker that plays like “edgy” Lynyrd Skynyrd, Icky Thump’s garage rock tracks work pretty well. Any attempt at genre-dabbling, though, is a creative dead-end. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” is an overcooked mix of mariachi and spaghetti Western that only Quentin Tarantino might appreciate, and “St. Andrew (This Battle is in the Air)” goes Celtic with art-school spoken-word meanderings. The problem isn’t that the band are trying new things; it’s that their experiments show no room for growth.

Then comes that increasingly familiar refrain: this was interesting; can’t wait to see what’s next.

White Stripes | with Dan Sartain | 8 pm July 22 | at the Cumberland County Civic Center, in Portland | $32 | 207.775.3458 | www.theciviccenter.com

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Christopher Gray: cgray[a]phx.com

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