Monday, July 23, 2007

The White Stripes: Icky Thump

[for the London Lite]

It’s more than five year now since the White Stripes first arrived in the UK, amid a hail of hype (and whispered rumours as to the exact nature of singular frontman Jack White’s relationship with drumming ‘sister’ Meg) but our national fascination with the group shows no sign of abating. The groups who surfaced with them in 2001, The Strokes and The Hives, have been replaced on the nation’s tee-shirts and iPods by the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Snow Patrol, but the allure and mystique of the Detroit duo remain intact, six albums into their career.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Since the Stripes’ last album, 2005’s blistering, wounded Get Behind Me Satan, Jack White has wed Mancunian supermodel Karen Elson (who contributed the album title, a corruption of Lancastrian colloquialism ‘ecky thump’), fathered two children, and enjoyed acclaim and success with his extra-curricular supergroup, The Raconteurs. And Icky Thump wasn’t recorded on a shoestring in the front room of singular singer/guitarist Jack White’s house in Detroit, or London’s fabled low-budget garage-rock haven Toe Rag Studios, but is the result of a marathon (by their standards) three weeks at the relatively luxurious Blackbird Studio, in White’s new home of Nashville.

Still, anyone fearing that such salubrious surroundings and Jack’s newfound domestic bliss might have smoothed away The White Stripes’ electrifying rough edges can rest easy: Icky Thump is every bit as endearingly ‘hand-made’, as wilfully noisy, as tenderly crafted and as lyrically tart as anything the group has yet released. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)’, for example, hides a stinging rebuke for a wayward lover within riffs evoking the ragged glory of Neil Young and his Crazy Horse, while ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’ finds Jack juggling a Dylan-esque vocal and some of the most searing guitar heroics of his career.

A certain timelessness, a fascination with the thornier thickets of rock’n’roll’s past, has long been par for the White Stripes’ course, evidenced no clearer here than on ‘Conquest’, a cover of a tune made famous by Patti Page (the best-selling female artist of the 1950s) boasting a truly jaw-dropping duel between guitar and mariachi horn, or the bagpipe-augmented Highland folk of ‘Prickly Thorn Sweetly Worn’. They aren’t just living in the past, however: the lyrics of lead single ‘Icky Thump’ form a rare diversion into political songcraft for Jack, aimed squarely at hypocritical anti-immigration protestors (“White Americans, why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too”).

Confidence is the key to this album’s success, White’s ability to shift from raucous rockout to tender balladry, from broken-hearted blues to pointed polemic, with nary a flinch. Fashioning songs that sound classic the first time you hear them, and performing with a passion that electrifies, they’ve held our attention for over half a decade now, and show no sign of faltering yet.

(c) 2007, Stevie Chick

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