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White Elephant

 

The White Stripes: Elephant

Third Man/V2, 2003

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: March 31, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Elephant, the fourth album by the acclaimed Detroit duo the White Stripes, is an album of striking contradictions. As always, there's the contrast of singer-guitarist Jack White's love of stompin' muddy blues and the Stripes' garage-bred grounding in loose-meat guitar cacophony. There's the whole matter of the duo's size and (mostly) bass-free approach belying the enormity of their sound. There's even the gender imbalance of Jack's increasingly grating forays into glam-era foppishness set against Meg White's bedrock drumming.

And most importantly, there's the earthy tradition embodied in the Stripes' two musical poles, contrasted with White's naked ambition -- Elephant trumpets its desire to join Pet Sounds, Revolver and Trout Mask Replica in the pantheon of rock's defining, radical-shift classics with every gimmicky effect, change of pace and crunchy, sweaty riff.

That cavalier, anything-goes feel is a huge part of Elephant's appeal (and it has plenty of appeal). The brazen gusto with which Jack White swings for the fences validates our firmly held belief that lumping the White Stripes in among the Strokes or the Hives in the "garage rock revival" sweepstakes has been an inaccurate form of damning them with faint praise, unfairly limiting our sense of the duo's power and scope. It's heartening to hear the Stripes building on the affecting, deceptively simple sound they've built over the course of three previous albums and taking it to someplace that's both satisfying in its visceral crunch-rock grandeur and intellectually stimulating. To be frank, the way in which the Stripes break away, once and for all, from the rest of the garage-revival pack is nothing short of liberating.

But in keeping with that theme of contrasts, it's also what holds Elephant back. As easy as it is to let go and give in to the operatic, multi-tracked swirl of "There's No Home For You Here," the snarling and strangely cathartic swagger of "Black Math" and the fuck-it-all gonzo spirit that drives "Little Acorns" (with its too-artsy found-sounds intro) and "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" -- it's difficult not to see the man behind the curtains, working feverishly to impress us by throwing in every sonic trick he can find to pump extra air into a sturdy set of foot-stomping rockers. We expect our rock and roll musicians to try to impress us, but we don't expect the good ones, the powerful ones, to let it show quite so much. Which is to say, we expect to see Marilyn Manson, for example, sweating to make sure we remember him. We don't expect to see Jack White doing so. Especially since the more he lets go and simply allows his blues-rock instincts room to roam (as on the commanding eight-minute workout "Ball and Biscuit"), the less he needs the flashy bells and whistles of "There's No Home"'s tower of babble to remind us of the Stripes' authority.

But it's not Jack White's often-giddy sense of one-upmanship that weighs the disc down. It's the self-consciousness with which he and Meg let us know that they know they're not just rocking out for the sake of the music. The stiff, self-congratulatory "In the Cold, Cold Night" coasts solely on the fact of Meg's vocal turn, and it's disappointing that she and Jack assume the novelty of hearing her sing cancels out the tune's bland limpness. Worse, the grating closer "Well It's True That We Love One Another" -- which slyly winks at the duo's self-invented brother-sister mythology -- suggests that the White Stripes are spending too much time and energy on the least memorable and least important aspects of their enterprise. Did anyone care that the Ramones didn't all really share the same last name? Does anyone other than Entertainment Weekly actually give a shit that the Whites want to have a little fun propagating the idea that they're brother and sister? It's their right, and it's kind of cute, as far as it goes. The difference is that the Ramones never tossed off a throwaway tune in which they excessively winked at each other for having pulled the wool over anyone's eyes. They knew that the mythology they'd built around themselves was the garnish, and the tunes themselves the focus. On "Well It's True That We Love One Another," as in the winking bassline that opens "Seven Nation Army" and the exuberant show-offiness of "There's No Home" and "Little Acorns," the Whites appear to have lost sight of that important little fact.

Still, there's much to recommend Elephant, including many of those same self-aware touches that distract our attention away from what's supposed to matter the most. But it's when Jack and Meg White shrug off the faint whiff of pretension, when they abandon the idea of pleasing themselves with their cleverness and get down to the business of expanding on their compelling blues-punk stomp ("The Hardest Button to Button") -- when they settle into reworking the Burt Bacharach tune "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" into a movingly vulnerable trifle -- that Elephant crashes about with the imposing majesty of its namesake.

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