Taking an ungodly-for-them three weeks to record the 47 minutes and 44 seconds found here, newly relocated power duo The White Stripes (Jack’s in Nashville with his pregnant supermodel wife; Meg’s off being reclusive somewhere in L.A.) have delivered their longest long-player since 2003’s Elephant. Here’s how the new guy stacks up, track-by-track:
“Icky Thump,” 4:15
The one-time lovers sure as hell don’t bury the lede. The most convincing Stripes opener since “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” Jack trades the somewhat anemic marimba and piano pairings of 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan for the analogue smack of patchbay synths and his trademark bobo guitars. Despite its pseudo-inflammatory anti anti-immigration barbs, it’s still a bit stale lyrically. Formally though, it takes more twists and turns than the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.” And unless you’re Flavor Flav or Bret Michaels, you really “can’t be a pimp and prostitute too.”
“You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told),” 3:54
Bolstered by a classic sounding Chilton-with-a-Zeppelin-come-hither riff, the Stripes follow suit on this one – the projected follow-up single. Wordy and playfully immature (“In some respects, I suspect you’ve got a respectable side”), Meg on the other hand has never sounded so sure of herself. Her almost comically minimal gestures, while still sparse and as on-the-beat as Charlie Watts, are imbued with a new found sense of power and urgency. No more Rachel Trachtenburg disses, please.
“300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues,” 5:29
While it sounds like it could be a Dylan tune in title, the electro-acoustic dialectic here is much stronger than when Bob himself plugged in at Newport back in ’65. Densely distorted clouds of chorus interrupt Jack’s delicately fingerpicked verses at near random. It’s a gloriously messy take on their idea of the blues, and if the candy stripers had stayed in Detroit any longer, they probably wouldn’t have recorded this one this go ’round.
Jack and Meg’s taste in covers has always been wide-eyed and omnivorous – everything from Burt Bacharach, to Captain Beefheart, to Tegan and Sara. Not suprisingly, here they refashion Patti Paige’s novelty tale of one-night stand irony as a barre chord flamenco swashbuckler. Less than three minutes, it’s a relatively short romp though. But with Jack’s guitar and trumpeter Regulo Aldama dueling back and forth, it could’ve just as easily been called “The Devil Went Down To Tijuana.”
“Bone Broke,” 3:14
Whether this one’s autobiographical of not, it’s harder still to fathom Jack White being anything less than a Scrooge McDuck – swimming around in piles of money he’s made from both his music (the Stripes, The Raconteurs, whoring out Loretta Lynn to the hipster set, etc.) as well as his “other” work (Cold Mountain, that episode of The Simpsons, that upcoming Elvis Presley cameo, etc.). Be that as it may, “Bone Broke” is as classic White Stripes as they get on this outing. If you still need help stifling your laughter when Jack talks of his supposed financial woes, just remember George Michael’s admonition in Vol. I: “Listen Without Prejudice.”
“Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn,” 3:06/”St. Andrew (This Battle Is In the Air),” 1:50
Underscored by an unusually pleasant trio of D-drone bagpipes, compressed clapping and a winsome mandolin strum, track six could very well pass as some sort of soundtrack to Leopold Bloom’s long day in Dublin. With Jack’s make-shift Gaelic tra-la-las and Meg’s always economical tambourine, “Prickly Thorn…” is perhaps thee best cut off Icky Thump and one of the best, most forward-by-looking-backward tunes J&M have done in a long while. As the pipes gradually usurp the vocal and the whole gigue itself surges to the chorus faster than The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” track six is elided almost imperceptibly with seven. Meg then takes the mic for the first time and offers several non sequitur turns of phrase to which Jack’s guitar feels obliged to comment on. It’s a weird place to be for sure, but in terms of intention and scope at least, it might just be this duo’s “Baba O’Riley.”
“Little Cream Soda,” 3:45
A well-worn tale of innocence lost where the only answer to the situation is a resigned “Oh well, Oh well,” J. White recalls the days when all he ever wanted was his “ice cream colder and a little cream soda.” Sure, it’s a little trite and juvenile, but hey, this is a song about his youth. And yet, as the youngest of ten children, we can’t help but wonder if Jack White’s nostalgia – born as John Anthony Gillis – is nothing more than the jealousy-induced ruminations of the family runt. It’s a rather forgettable song either way.
“Rag and Bone,” 3:48
With a bottom string ZZ Top lick replete with the obligatory quarter-note stick clicks from Meg, this one single-handedly saves the last few tracks on the album from the dreaded “filler” tag. Yet another blues-based composition, “Rag and Bone” finds J&M surveying the detritus of cemeteries and convalescent centers – Sanford and Son style – taking all they want and more importantly, wanting all they take. Near mint condition with only minor scratches, in particular Jack’s spoken-word urge “But please be kind and don’t rewind.”
“I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” 4:35
This one starts big and has all the right elements for greatness – throbbing bass drum, taut, tense snare, whitewashed cymbals, gospel organ, J. White’s upper register – but alas, it never seems to go anywhere other than those shocking first chords. Jack tries to push the musical narrative forward with some much needed guitar noise, but by then the momentum derived from the opening has already sailed. Longtime collaborator and all-around Gallic genius Michel Gondry is set to direct this video; maybe he can find something to do with it.
“A Martyr for My Love for You,” 4:20
Jack White is a frustrating lyricist. For every brilliant phrase here like “maybe these ruby shoes are a little cumbersome for you” or “talking junk through her giggle, little teenage dream,” there’s a horrible, grade-school line like “I could stay a while, but sooner or later I’ll brake your smile.” Later on, he’ll go so far as to rhyme “joke” with “choke.” Even the title itself is kinda dumb. And that’s too bad because, musically, this really is a beautiful song.
“Catch Hell Blues,” 4:18
As with Dylan’s Modern Times, the blues – in whatever form – are ultimately what ruin this disc. While Jack White might be the biggest big-tent revivalist, he’s certainly not the best in town. And just because you can do a Son House, Leadbelly or Blind Willie McTell cover doesn’t necessarily mean that you should…ever. This is by far the weakest cut on the album. ‘Nuff said.
“Effect and Cause,” 3:00
At times, especially on all-acoustic numbers like this one, Jack White can sound like Jack Black doing an impression of Jack White. Funny as that sounds, “Effect and Cause” finds the former Jack back with his beloved dualisms trying to express catholic universals with only black, white, oh and of course, the occasional red terms. While it’s certainly understandable to run out of steam and ideas towards the end J&M, it’s not at all excusable to save them from the cutting-room floor. After all, that’s exactly what the deluxe edition is for.
Bottom line, whatever you’ve heard from The White Stripes before – even all you pre-fame trilogy die hards out there – is still here to hear in abundance. Moreover, the things that you haven’t are well worth your time and money.