The White Stripes – Elephant

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1. Let’s start with the obvious: this is a good album.

2. This is not, however, a great album (I’m not sure any White Stripes album qualifies). It is often mistaken as one because a) this has “Seven Nation Army” on it and that is a great song, b) this one boasts a consistency throughout its 14-tracks that White Blood Cellscompletely lost in its final stretch and c) if I were to the type to make declarative and definitive statements—and I totally am—this is where garage rock revival basically died. After a whole two fucking years, whoop-de-doo.

3. One of my main issues with Elephant stems from the tracklisting. In my initial playthroughs of the album, I barely ever made it through “Black Math” without going back to relisten to “Seven Nation Army.” That’s of course, not a mark against “Black Math,” whose see-saw stomp genuinely sounds like that an elephant would make if they were less gentle and more giant, but rather just emphasizes “Seven Nation Army”’s greatness. I think it would’ve been better if it imitated the White Stripes live sets where they closed with “Seven Nation Army,” or introduced it in their last stretch of songs, ie. swapping places with “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine.”

4. As “After Hours” on The Velvet Underground taught me that they should’ve let Maureen Tucker sing lead more, the same applies here with Meg White-sung “In the Cold, Cold Night,” with her diffidently taking lead vocals for the first time while Jack White lays down a deliberate guitar line to give you the feeling that you just walked into a warm lounge on a cold night. It’s more than just her voice that’s a welcome reprieve after the opening four-song stretch; it’s also the comparatively much slower tempo. What bothers me, then, is Jack White’s decision to follow it up with two other mid-tempo songs that push melody and twee-ness. Both are innocuous offerings that seek to do the same thing that “We’re Going to be Friends” did but never coming close to that one. And if you didn’t like that one to begin with… Well, let’s just say no one listens to the White Stripes for melody, do they?

5. You could argue, I suppose, that those three songs are getting you ready for the bluesy onslaught of “Ball and Biscuit,” but I’d argue that despite Jack White’s vaudevillian showmanship, no pop(ular) act made of one man has any business making 7-minute songs (Meg White barely does anything at all on that track. Hell, barring when she takes vocals, she barely does anything at all on the album). Trim it by 2-minutes and I don’t think much anyone would care to complain.

6. So what does Meg White do? Well, “The Hardest Button to Button” basically makes it plain for us. She keeps time (seriously, anyone with a MacBook and an open tab to the wikihow article on how to use GarageBand can do what she does on that song). But that’s okay, because no one listens to the White Stripes for the drumming, do they? It gives Jack White room to do little bursts of guitar or vocals over the persistent/insistent drumming. The lyrics?They don’t mean a damn thing. “My ma gave birth and we were checking it out / t was a baby boy / So we bought him a toy / It was a ray gun / And it was 1981 / We named him “Baby,” and “I got a backyard / With nothing in it  / Except a stick, a dog / And a box with something in it.” Hard to argue its stupidity, but considering I have the song memorized front-to-back, it’s also hard to argue its sheer catchiness and the fact that Jack White delivers them with a conviction that we sort of believe that he did name his baby, “Baby.”

7. Elephant has the White Stripes—or Jack White specifically, since Meg White doesn’t deal with creativity so much as she deals in cuteness—dipping their/his front toe in more ambitious waters. It’s their major label debut, and in certain songs, they’re shrugging off their voluntary simplicity. The middle section of  “There’s No Home For You Here” would have you believe there were much people involved in the band, like it were trying to replicate the grandiosity of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I enjoyed it when I first heard it, but nowadays, I feel like Jack White’s ambition was greater than his physical capacity and the vocals that sound more like the White Stripes (the run through of the “Waking up for breakfast” verse) just feel much more natural in comparison.

8. Meanwhile, we have a never-before-seen-on-a-White-Stripes-album monologue that opens “Little Acorns” (courtesy of broadcast journalist Mort Crim). Truthfully, it’s also the most memorable part of that track.

9. ”Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” might be the White Stripes’ most convincing rocker, up there with “Fell In Love With a Girl.” A 3-minute song that runs by like it were 2-minutes? Okay.

10. I had originally assumed that Pitchfork’s low score for Elephant (6.9, in case you don’t want to be caught dead looking at that site to see what they gave it, and the blasphemous part of it is it’s worse than the score they gave Get Behind Me Satan or Icky Thump—fucking bullshit is what that is) was simply because they were trying to predict the death of garage rock revival and helping their readers establish taste by turning to hipper alternatives. The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs also suffered relatively mediocre scores that same year.

But reading Brent DiCrescenzo’s review of Elephant (that same guy who gave a Sonic Youth album a 0.0 on the sole basis that it was written about New York City and not Chicago, and that same guy who wrote the notorious and ridiculous metaphor-laden review of Kid A) suggests that his (note: not their) problems with the record run deeper. He goes at length about the White Stripes’ “multilayered, contrived personas– both within individual songs and as the greater public face of the band,” writing that “The useless, cheeky album closer, “It’s True That We Love One Another” […] [piles] on the Meta like Charlie Kaufman scripted the lyrics, this hoedown toys with the Jack and Meg relationship “mystery” that was made abundantly clear in the 459 press articles on The White Stripes over the last two years, while throwing Holly Golightly into a threesome of unfunny winks.”

On this, I’ll both retort with the following: 1) despite the fact that the closer is more about image and less about music, it’s the best White Stripes closer there ever was, featuring a melody that White Blood Cells’ “This Protector” would be jealous of, and enough cuteness (H: “Jack, won’t you call me if you’re able?” J: “I got your phone number written in the back of my bible.” H: “Jack, I think your pulling my leg”) to fill the best illustrated children’s books. 2) the White Stripes’ fascination with their image only helped them become one of the biggest rock acts of the 00’s. Leaving questions like “What is with your fetish with white and red?” “Are Jack and Meg White lovers?” “Siblings?” “(Ew) Both??!!” up in the air made them a tabloid sensation.

11. The most tangible example of their image helping their music is with “Seven Nation Army.” Their strict adherence to an electric guitar and drum format meant that when listeners heard a riff that sounded like it was generated by a bass (but it turns out it wasn’t), it was the biggest controversy since the Lewinsky scandal. (Hyperbolic? Maybe.) But again, that song’s great; unlike “Black Math” or ”Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine,” which are comparatively straight rockers, “Seven Nation Army” is perhaps the only song in the White Stripes’ catalog that showcases Jack White’s vocal versatility, how he moves from rabble-rousing invulnerabiliyt to just the opposite in the falsettoed bits (“And I’m talking to myself all night behind a cigarette”). Even people who have never touched a guitar in their life could probably air-guitar the riff to “Seven Nation Army” and be pretty accurate about what their fingers  are supposed to do—it’s that easy. Which also means that when Jack White introduces the slightest of variations—it sounds that much more badass.

It kind of boggles the mind that no one had thought of that riff before 2003.

12. Also: one of the best album covers I’ve ever seen.

A-

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