Monday, August 23, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1499: The White Stripes

Despite a responsible Sunday evening and good night’s sleep I’m feeling Monday today a bit harder than usual. Fortunately, I have a week of fun ahead to restore my vitality.

Disc 1499 is…. Icky Thump

Artist: The White Stripes

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? This cover is proof-positive the White Stripes went out at the top. Their first album features them in t-shirts. Eight years later (to the day – both their first and last record were released on June 15) they’re rocking some serious beadwork. These glorious outfits look like they weight a ton, with a cost to match.

And if you’re wondering, yes I would wear Meg’s hat and no, I would not be caught dead in Jack’s.

How I Came To Know It: Like most people with ears in the mid-oughts, I loved the White Stripes. I bought this when it came out. I probably heard the title track before I did, and that wouldn’t have hurt.

How It Stacks Up: I have six White Stripes albums, which is all of them. Competition among those records is tough, and brilliant as it is, “Icky Thump” can only manage to land at #4.

Ratings: 4 stars

What can you say about the last album from a band that reinvented rock and roll, that blazed a path for those that would follow that was so hot and furious you’d be crazy to try to imitate them? I’d like to go back in time and beg them to reconsider, but since that’s an impossibility I’ll just applaud in appreciation of a band that accomplishes what few ever do: go out on top.

While many bands this far into their career are already recycling old concepts, the White Stripes were continuing to stretch their already unique brand of rock into new and fascinating ways.

Yes, Jack White’s guitar is still front and centre, knocking out grimy, dirty riffs with equal parts ferocity and perfect timing. White has always been a revelation on guitar with his genius for understanding what makes the blues the blues, but then playing them from a wholly different perspective. You’d be hard pressed to say it is anything other than rock and blues, but it just feels gloriously different when he does it. And all that reverb and under-growl has allowed him to do it all the while with nary a bass in the mix.

The record starts with a classic thumper in the title track. The White Stripes have plenty of these classic grooves in their repertoire, but “Icky Thump” is easily one of the best. It’s got it all: crazy call-and-answer guitar, an irresistible riff and White’s electric vocal performance. Hell, I even enjoyed the thump of Meg’s drums on this one. It is so easy to listen to, it always feels like it ends too early, and it was all I could do to not just go back and play it again immediately.

Fortunately the record has plenty more where that came from, including “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “Bone Broke” and “Little Cream Soda” all of which grab and shake you by your earholes and make you like it.

Atop this ferocity the band has added a playful light alter ego of sound that gives the album a lot of dynamic range as well as a cool-down vibe for when you need it. My favourite of the bunch is “300 M.P.H. Torrential Downpour Blues” which has an easy-going pick pattern layered with a second easy going pick pattern. Then, right when you’re about to let out a heavy sigh and take a sip of iced tea, you spill your drink all over yourself as Jack fires some crazed feedback-ridden guitar hell at you. It sounds like the blues on bath salts, but he successfully twists it into something dark and beautiful.

The White Stripes often limit themselves to guitar, drum and vocals but on Icky Thump they have a couple of tracks that feature bagpipes. They aren’t my favourite tracks, and Meg White’s banter near the end of “St. Andrew (the Battle is in the Air)” annoyed me, but they still manage to make the experience work, at least to that point. Even the self-indulgent “Rag and Bone” is generally a good time, if for no other reason than the insistent and energized rhythm of the tune. Also, Jack features this time, and he’s notably better at idle banter than Meg.

Because of the furious genius of his guitar work and innovative production, Jack White’s lyrics often get short shrift, but there are plenty of places on Icky Thump where he displays his wry wit and talent for a turn of phrase. My favourite for this is the album’s final track, “Effect and Cause” where White turns the usual concept on its head to remonstrate someone’s spurious logic. It loses something sitting stale on the page, but I encourage you to give the song a listen and revel in the intermingling of metaphor and barroom philosophy.

The record gets a bit too cute for its own good in places, but it always does so in a way that makes you know the White Stripes are in on the joke. Also, they always manage to pull it off at the last second.

Jack White would go on to many more successful projects, including three albums in each of the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, and as a solo artist. He hadn’t lost his touch with the White Stripes in 2007, he was just ready to move on. Fortunately he left us one hell of a parting gift.

Best tracks: Icky Thump, You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told), 300 M.P.H. Torrential Downpour Blues, Little Cream Soda, I’m Slowly Turning Into You, A Martyr For My Love For You, Effect and Cause

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