The White Stripes (1999; V2, 2002)
De Stijl (2000; V2, 2002)
White Blood Cells (2001; V2, 2002)
Elephant (V2, 2003)
Get Behind me Satan (V2, 2005)
Icky Thump (Third Man / Warner Bros, 2007)
Springing up from Detroit to become one of the best bands of the 2000s, the White Stripes were a divorced couple who masqueraded as brother and sister, wore alternating white-and-red outfits, and rewired the blues for a new generation of rock kids. Singer-guitarist Jack White proved himself a world-class sonic architect while wrenching all kinds of deliciously brooding melodies out of his coffee-and-cigarettes yowl, and button-cute Meg White assaulted her simple trap set and said a lot by not saying much at all.
The White Stripes combines big, jagged blues riffs, Meg's dirt-simple pounding, and Jack's tortured howl into a shambolic mess that recalls Motor City forbears like the MC5. The songs don't push your pleasure buttons as well as the later, more well-wrought stuff, and the slightly clumsy attack of "Screwdriver" and "Astro" veer too close to forgettable punk bashing. But "Jimmy the Exploder" and "The Big Three Killed My Baby" (about the quagmire the auto industry had become) are fuzzed-out barnburners that foreshadow their later triumphs, and two well-chosen covers—Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee" and Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator"—manage to sound nothing like the originals and are all the better for it.
De Stijl, named for an early-20th-century minimalist art movement, found the Stripes upping the songwriting ante, turning out another wildly noisy affair but making use of a newfound tunefulness. The album kicks off with an excellent one-two punch: "You're Pretty Good Looking" is a slightly warped version of sunny Sixties pop, and "Hello Operator" is the finest of White's deceptively simple riff-based numbers. Elsewhere, Jack and Meg delve into acoustic surrealism ("I'm Bound to Pack It Up"), Kinks-esque pop ("Apple Blossom"), and a jokey country cover (Blind Willie McTell's "Your Southern Can Is Mine").
White Blood Cells was the Stripes' breakthrough, thanks to major-label distrubtion and Michel Gondry's, Lego-riffiic video for "Fell in the Love With a Girl." The killer tunes didn't hurt, either. "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," "I'm Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman," and "The Same Boy You've Always Known" turn down the intensity level in favor of slightly dark, scorched-earth tunefulness and some of Jack's best cracked-throat crooning, and "Hotel Yorba" is a stomping acoustic sing-along about a hotel where "all they got inside is vacancy." Elsewhere, "The Union Forever" is a creepy, slow-burning meditation on marriage with a bizarro midsection that quotes Citizen Kane, and "Fell in Love With a Girl" is a high-velocity number that squeezes all the promise of neo–garage rock into a verbose diatribe about a bewildering love affair.
White Blood Cells put the White Stripes on the verge of stardom, and Elephant took them the rest of the way. Recorded over a two-week stretch in London on an eight-track machine that dated from the early Sixties, Elephant finds the Stripes coming up with an ever more full-bodied attack. The opener, "Seven Nation Army," has the greatest riff of the decade – a six-note call-to-arms that ended up all over the airwaves. From there Jack and Meg channel their sound into a series of dark-not-desolate rockers such as "Black Math," "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" and "The Hardest Button to Button," which also has a super-cool Gondry-directed video. The stylistic quirks aren't as pronounced, but the duo manage to increase their power by focusing their energy.
Not long after Elephant, Jack White collaborated with country legend Loretta Lynn, producing her Van Lear Rose album. For White, it was the first of several high-profile projects outside the Stripes: There was also the Raconteurs, his band with Detroit singer-songwriter Brendan Benson and the rhythm section from Cincinnati garage-rockers the Greenhornes, and The Dead Weather, which was fronted by the Kills' Alison Mosshart. (See Jack White album guide entry for more details.)
Back with Meg, Jack made Get Behind Me Satan, which was weirder and less heavy than earlier Stripes' records. The duo explored bluegrass ("Little Ghost"), messy, Stones-style ballads ("Take Take Take"), acoustic reveries ("As Ugly As I Seem"), and mirimba-laden grooves ("Forever For Her (Is Over For Me))." It could have been the difficult, messy album bands make when they get a little too sure of their own genius, except it wasn't: Jack's love lyrics ring true, and the ramshackle tunes on songs like "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet") are worthy of the band's high standards. On Icky Thump the Stripes returned to garage-rock mode, blasting out stunners like the Zeppelin-esque title track, where Jack cranked up an Univox synth riff and took the anti-immigration crowd to task. Thump isn't as revelatory as White Blood Cells or Elephant, but it's still plenty of fun.
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