A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 14, 2007
I was prepared to be disappointed by The White Stripes’ new album, Icky Thump.
It’s not just because Jack White somehow turned into a movie-star-dating, model-marrying rock star. It was the music. After four exciting, enchanting, and exuberant albums, the band’s 2005 effort, Get Behind Me Satan, was a frustrating mess that never quite jelled. And White’s subsequent side project, The Raconteurs, was just plain bland.
Oh well, I figured, maybe it was time for The White Stripes to fade away. Four good-to-great albums isn’t a bad run for a band, especially for a duo — a duo! — performing high-charged, Zepped-out covers of old Son House and Robert Johnson tunes. And besides, Jack White will always have that album he produced for Loretta Lynn and those cool hillbilly songs on the Cold Mountain soundtrack. You can’t take those away from him.
So I was just hoping that the new album wouldn’t do any permanent damage to The White Stripes’ memory.
Guess what? As Hazel, would say, Icky Thump is a doozy. Jack and his ex-wife, Meg, have returned to their basic guitar/drum attack. In fact, some songs, like the nasty slide-guitar-driven “Catch Hell Blues,” seem to be a conscious return to the Stripes’ early sound. However, many songs are fortified by touches of instrumental weirdness that show the Whites looking forward.
Jack sounds truly happy to be here, playing his guitar like a maniac and warbling like the reincarnation of Marc Bolan hopped up on trucker crank. Meg is playing drums less like Moe Tucker and more like the Mighty Thor.
On the first song, the title track, I was almost afraid the Stripes were going political by interjecting themselves in the immigration debate. In the middle of lyrics about a “redheaded señorita” in Mexico comes a provocative verse: “White Americans, what?/Nothing better to do?/Why don’t you kick yourself out/You’re an immigrant too.”
Not that I mind political songs, but that wouldn’t seem to be a strength of the Stripes. This verse seems to be an anomaly on this album. People are going to remember the song for the crazy balloon-rubbing guitar noises and the explosive drums. There don’t seem to be other overt political themes unless “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)” is an oblique reference to Iraq.
I’m having fun spotting subtle salutes to older songs. The hook on “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” might remind you of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” while the acoustic guitar chords on “Effect & Cause” is right out of The Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
Did I say something about instrumental weirdness? “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” features some Cold Mountain mandolin and droning bagpipes (not to mention Meg’s drums, which make a subliminal suggestion that a Scottish army is about to come down from the hills and pillage the town). That’s immediately followed by “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air),” another bagpipe-and-drum song with Meg reciting some strange prayer (“This battle is in the air/I’m looking upwards/St. Andrew, don’t forsake me”) and White blasting bizarre, electronically altered guitar licks straight out of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
But even this pair of tunes isn’t as delightfully strange as “Conquest,” a twisted cover of an old Patti Page song. Jack and Meg, aided by trumpeter Regulo Aldama, turn the song into an electric bullfight. White pours himself into the melodramatic lyrics, “The hunted became the huntress, the hunter became the prey” (making the final “became” into a five- or six-syllable word). But I think the Frank Zappa-like Munchkins-in-the-dungeon background vocals are my favorite part of the song.
At this writing my favorite song on Icky Thump is “Rag and Bone,” a partly sung but mostly spoken tune in which we find Jack and Meg scavenging for old junk — “a broken trumpet or a telephone ... turntables and gramophones.” It’s not clear if they’re supposed to be cruising yard sales or just going through trash outside peoples’ houses. Whatever the case, a listener wants to be with them. During the song Jack goes into a rap (with Meg responding, “Uh huh,” in agreement) that could almost be interpreted as the band’s philosophy of music as well: “It’s just things that you don’t want, I can use ’em. Meg can use ’em. We’ll do something with ’em. We’ll make something out of ’em. We’ll make some money out of ’em at least.”
I hope they make lots of money and stick around for a long time.
*Listen My Friends: The Best of Moby Grape. MG is a San Francisco Summer of Love band whose name is spoken with reverence in rock criticdom — or at least without the condescending sneer reserved for other bands of the hippie era. And in truth, the Grape deserves major respect. The group’s first, self-titled album (pictured here) was nothing short of a masterpiece, and the songs “Omaha” and “Hey Grandma” from that album are timeless rockers that still thrill those with ears to hear, while “8:05” is a sweet heartbreaker that ranks with the finest of country rock.
Unfortunately, after that wild creative burst things started falling apart for MG. Part of that was due to singer/guitarist Skip Spence’s descent into schizophrenia.
The follow-up Wow was sprawling and self-consciously artsy but had some great moments. Their subsequent work was almost completely forgettable.
This collection includes six impeccable songs from the first album (including those named above) and some of the better tunes from Wow, including the brilliant “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” and “Can’t Be So Bad,” a rampaging blues number that slows down at the end of every verse for some inexplicable days-of-old-when-knights-were-bold trumpets.
Most of the remaining songs are pretty mediocre except “Sweet Ride (Never Again),” which shows traces of the first album’s spark, and Spence’s “Seeing,” which starts slow and builds into an intense psychedelic workout.
I just wish that Sony/BMG would have instead rereleased Moby Grape and Wow, now available only in overpriced versions on the obscure San Francisco Sound label.
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