Tuesday, September 18, 2007

[067] White Blood Cells

Album: White Blood Cells
Artist: The White Stripes
Release Date: July 2001
Label: Sympathy For The Record Industry; reissued on V2
Producer: Jack White

“It might sound silly for me to think childish thoughts like these
But I’m so tired of acting tough, and I’m gonna do what I please
Let’s get married in a big cathedral by a priest
Cuz if I’m the man that you love the most you could say ‘I do’ at least”
-from “Hotel Yorba”

There will never be another White Stripes album as good as White Blood Cells. You may think that there can be, or is already, and Rolling Stone can dole out as many 5-star ratings as they want, but this will always be The One. Yes I know they’re one of the most interesting and consistent acts around right now, and they will probably keep growing and getting weirder in their own way, but you can’t choose when you have your cosmic moment...or whatever; you know what I mean. The White Stripes had the perfect story: Brother and sister that talk and act all old-timey courteous and only wear three colors, form a childlike guitar-&-drums garage duo that play poppy folk tunes and old blues songs filtered through the Detroit rock sound. Except there was one problem – they weren’t brother and sister. They were husband and wife. And this was their divorce album.

They had been married for four years, playing in the band for almost as long, and they didn't even take a break after the split (as far as I can tell); they got right back in the studio, so you cannot fuck with the tension in this album. The album is all their fire focused on the music instead of each other. There’s a sonic divide between the previous album, De Stijl, and WBC; this album just feels bigger even though nothing has been added to the formula. The guitars are fatter, rounder, thicker. Meg’s drums slam with more force. The White Stripes have something I like to call ‘The Lurch’, and I’ve never heard another band have it. It may be that Meg’s sense of rhythm is constantly rocking forward, like she can’t wait to get to the 1 and the 3, or it could be the result of their live non-verbal communication, turning on a dime. It’s the same kind of telepathy that Townshend and Moon had. Songs like “Expecting” or the instrumental
“Aluminum”, where the drums and guitar align for every hit, are classic examples of ‘The Lurch’, shoving you with every measure. The cuddly "Fell In Love With A Girl" however is just nuts, a simple punk tune to be sure, but never hinted at by the duo's previous discography. Elsewhere, Jack simply beefs up the guitars on songs he would’ve previously left as simple pop. Without the chunky “Revolution” licks, highlight “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” would just be a piano-driven ditty, and “Now Mary” would just be a country hoedown novelty. Likewise, Jack’s shimmering guitar on “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” almost overshadows the watery organ that the song floats on; it’s the first hint of the full-bodied Power Pop he’d explore with The Raconteurs.

It’s actually quite telling that the quote I chose for the top of this entry is conveniently not included with the lyrics in the liner notes. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall in the studio during recording. As much as Jack White wants to project an outdated, slightly misogynistic image of The Man in a Man’s World, James Brown told us it wouldn’t be anything without a woman or a girl, and you just know that the second they’re behind closed doors, Meg has plenty to say; she’s so quiet all the time, it’s like she’s saving it all up for later. Apparently, Jack was saving too – for this album. For all the big deal people want to make about their sound, it’s the words on this album that really make a difference. Virtually every song alludes to the disintegration of a relationship or a man’s dilemmas with being a husband. “Expecting” claims that she owns him forever, but by “Same Boy”, she’s already forgotten his name. On the aforementioned “Gentleman”, he starts the argument, but it’s one-sided. First he tries reason, that “it don’t take much to satisfy me”, but a minute later, he’s escalating to insensitivity, spitting that a doctor should decide which one of them is the sane one, and abandoning chivalry in favor of his favorite jacket. He can’t even “find emotion to stimulate devotion”, so how could he ever make his way to the real thing?

In other places, he comes off as fragile; He contemplates his ability, or lack thereof, to shoulder marital responsibility and strength on “This Protector” and “Offend In Every Way”. In “Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground”, Jack’s woman has left him, and he arrives home to “no one to wrap my arms around”, showering her with flowery compliments to get her to return. His frustration turns to bile in the end, with the grand "The Union Forever" crying "There is no true love", but slipping in the even more brutal and revealing, "You said the union forever, but that was untrue, girl!" Oh, the pain in young Jack White's heart! "I Can't Wait" is the most confrontational, with Jack trying to play big man, fronting that he's strong and Meg (or whoever) is weak, but by the second verse of the song, he wants to know how she is going to fix his life, "Tell me how I'm supposed to get through with this??" He's still broken and in denial, and it comes out in such a subtle lyric that you might miss it.

When The White Stripes are done, they could be remembered in many ways. As blues disciples along side The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. As Detroit Rock City Gods, standing tall with The MC5 and Stooges. As representatives of economy in music, hanging out with everyone from the Ramones and Wire to Guided By Voices and Daft Punk. But their songs are what makes them special; Jack has an innate tunefulness akin to Paul McCartney's (see "We're Going To Be Friends", obviously), but he can't put down the Rock Thunder. And here specifically, the words tells their greatest story, a story that they probably won't be able to tell again...not unless he gets his new wife to play marimba on tour.

01. "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground"
02. "Hotel Yorba"
03. "I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman"
04. "Fell In Love With A Girl"
05. "Expecting"
06. "Little Room"
07. "The Union Forever"
08. "The Same Boy You've Always Known"
09. "We're Going To Be Friends"
10. "Offend In Every Way"
11. "I Think I Smell A Rat"
12. "Aluminum"
13. "I Can't Wait"
14. "Now Mary"
15. "I Can Learn"
16. "This Protector"

"Fell In Love With A Girl" [video]

- BONUS: "Hotel Yorba" [video]
- BONUS: "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground" [video]
- BONUS: "We're Going To Be Friends" [video]
- BONUS: "The Union Forever" [fan video]
- BONUS: The making of the "Fell In Love A Girl" video
Directed by Michel Gondry

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