Music Review: The White Stripes' Icky Thump

by Stephen Tringali

Last year, The White Stripes seemed poised for destruction.

Though Jack White insisted otherwise, his efforts were clearly invested in his other band, The Raconteurs. And the year before that didn’t exactly hold much promise for The Stripes, either.

Get Behind Me Satan, The White Stripes’ 2005 release, looked as though it might be the band’s creative breaking point. The duo had already recorded four albums worth of guitar and drums blues-rock. Did anyone really want to hear a fifth, or even a sixth, record of the same material?

Jack didn’t think so. He turned to the piano, to the marimba, and occasionally back to the guitar. On the band’s latest release, however, White doesn’t seem so self-conscious or so worried that breaking from the band’s original guidelines — blues-rock minimalism based around the number three — will somehow compromise his original ideal — to return rock and roll to its pure, emotional roots.

Icky Thump achieves that ideal better than any White Stripes album since White Blood Cells. Sure, it’s got some of the same embellishments that Jack used on Get Behind Me Satan: the mariachi horns on “Conquest” and the bagpipes on “St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air).” But it’s also got some of the heaviest guitar chords he’s recorded since “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground.”

The album’s title track finds Jack ripping off a series of crunching guitar chords while riffing on U.S. immigration policy: “Who’s usin’ who? / What do we do? / Well, you can’t be a pimp / And a prostitute, too.”

But that’s not even the hardest track Icky Thump has to offer. On “Little Cream Soda,” Jack lays down a galloping, almost metal-like rhythm to support his high-pitched, swirling guitar solos.

The following track, “Rag & Bone,” continues in this hard-hitting style. It’s even got some of Jack’s most playful lyrical somersaults: “Lots of homes we ain’t been to yet / The west side / The south-west side / Middle East / Rich house / Dog house / Outhouse / Old folks’ house / House for unwed mothers / Halfway homes / Catacombs / Twilight Zones / Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.”

Jack’s lyrics always seem to find the backseat when fans and rock critics talk about the importance of The White Stripes. The band’s music — that’s where it’s at, fans and critics say. That’s what’s keeping rock and roll alive. And there sit Jack’s lyrics, always hiding humbly behind a wall of viciously distorted guitar squall.

But take a close listen to “The Big Three Killed My Baby” and hear just how poetically pissed off Jack is with the automobile industry. Or check out “We’re Going To Be Friends,” a song on which the lyrics don’t have to battle so maniacally with the music for attention, and notice just how touchingly he captures childhood memories.

If Icky Thump doesn’t convince fans and critics of Jack’s lyrical prowess, it will certainly force them to notice a few standout lines. “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” concludes with an especially good set of lyrics: “But I can’t help but wonder if after I’m gone will I still have these three hundred mile per hour, finger breaking, no answers, broken, battered dirty hands, bee stung and busted up, empty cup torrential outpour blues?”

He might not know the answer to that question just yet. But he does seem pretty certain — and he should be as long as The Stripes continue making albums as good as Icky Thump — that his own reputation will be safe long after he’s dead and gone, as he sings: “One thing’s for sure. In that graveyard, I’m gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes.”

(Photo © copyright 2005 by Patrick Keeler, and used with blanket permission from Patrick Keeler and the White Stripes; via whitestripes.com. To see the video for "Icky Thump," please check below.)

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