12 April 2003

Elephant, by The White Stripes

Great album. There’s nothing original about what the brother-and-sister (?) team known as The White Stripes are doing, but they just do it very well. At the moment I’m missing the two albums between their first album and this, their fourth, but I’d have to say that there hasn’t been any progress as such. You’ll see what I mean if you compare this album to Placebo’s recently released fourth album, which sounds completely different to their first. The White Stripes still have their feet firmly planted in Led Zeppelin’s first to third albums, even though other references creep in there every so often. But they’ve simply got better at it.

I don’t know of many other bands out there that do the Led Zeppelin-filtered blues-rock as well as The White Stripes. Of course they could be accused of being retro (and in the words of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, “Fuck retro anything”), but I think the truth is more subtle than that. The White Stripes are just plain old-school rock music with edge; there is no bombast about it, no pretence of being intense in an attempt to sell more records, and there is a sense of humour in much of what they do (witness the last song on this album, 'Well It's True That We Love One Another'). Unlike self-styled indie-drivel like Nickelcack (sorry, -back) or Puddle of Crud (sorry, Mudd), The White Stripes don’t wear Led Zeppelin T-shirts in order to gain ‘Rock’ credibility whilst regurgitating their insipid rubbish; you listen to their records and hear the influence of the music, and get the impression that they play the music they do simply because they love it.

The influence of Led Zeppelin is everywhere, although as I’ve indicated, only the first three blues-based albums of 1968-1970. Jack White’s impression of Robert Plant has to be heard to be believed, even if he can’t quite reach the high notes, and his guitar playing is clearly inspired by Jimmy Page. The 7-minute 'Ball and Biscuit' is a fully at home in the epic-blues-drama that Led Zep perfected on 'Since I've Been Loving You' on III. But as I’m listening to the record, I’m reminded of the other ‘Class of '68’ bands on occasion. 'The Hardest Button To Button' begins almost identically to 'No-One Came' from Deep Purple’s 1972 Fireball; Jack's singing on 'Hypnotize' is reminiscent of Purple’s Ian Gillan, and 'The Air Near My Fingers' reminds me of another Purple song, 'Hush'. The crunch of the middle section on 'Black Math' strikes me as a more than a passing reference to Black Sabbath, but in general when they crunch The White Stripes have more of The Stooges about them than Sabbath, as on 'Little Acorns'.

I guess it might be harder to appreciate fully what The White Stripes are doing if you don’t get the musical background, but the fact is that they rock in a way that very few bands do anymore. Fans of their predecessors might complain that we should bypass them and listen to the originals, but that’s not fair. For a start, Led Zep aren’t around anymore. Secondly, just as Nirvana were doing something important by attempting to decapitate the mullet-rock of the 80’s, not by doing anything original but by re-invigorating punk, The White Stripes are like a breath of fresh air in the foul-smelling morass which is today’s rock scene. And if it is any comfort to the old rockers who cringe at the thought of Led Zep and Purple being bundled into the same category as The Spice Girls in record shops, at least the fact that The White Stripes are to be found in the Indie section should offer some consolation. Good old-fashioned rock music is decidedly alternative in this day and age, and The White Stripes are doing it like no one else.

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