The late-1990s musical landscape was littered with what rock critic Jim DeRogatis called Triumph of the Boneheads, macho bully thugs who said they loved Nirvana while beating up the kids in school who were a lot like Kurt Cobain. It was anything but the alternative rock it pretended to be. Rather, it was the second coming of hair metal but with less hair, a group of faceless, bar chord slinging brats who would rather whine than celebrate.
This is not what Cobain and Billy Corgan had in mind.
History shows that Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins revolutionized modern rock by putting some much-needed balls into a keyboard and dance dominated genre. What seems to have been forgotten is the fact that neither one of these guys was actually trying to be tough. Cobain, for one, was devastated when burly football players would tell him how much they loved his music. It wasn’t meant for them, damnit. He never identified with them and didn’t even want them buying his records.
This is precisely why we need the White Stripes. It’s time to give modern rock back to the meek, the misfits who found themselves in the alternative after being shunned by the mainstream in the first place. That the alternative is now the mainstream is beside the point; the inevitable result of a demographic-obsessed culture that absolutely has to have a place for everything. The White Stripes are a much-needed reminder of what it meant to be alternative, how it’s okay to not sound like everyone else. Elephant, their newest album, was recorded in two weeks last year, but this is no rush job. If anything, it sounds like a meticulous, carefully crafted piece of art, not the work of a divorced couple with two instruments between them. It’s a White Stripes record for people who can’t stand the White Stripes.
The most noticeable difference between Elephant and last year’s left field hit, White Blood Cells, is how much fuller the sound is. The first instrument on track one, the blistering “Seven Nation Army,” is a bass guitar, which was verboten on earlier work. Lead singer and main songwriter Jack White has also fine-tuned his singing, harnessing the bluesy growl that always flirted underneath the punk veneer. It’s Robert Plant if he had fronted the Sex Pistols. In short, White has never sounded better. Meg White’s drum tracks have never sounded bigger, either. She’s booming like Bonzo here. That is, except for the part where she’s a tenth the drummer Bonzo was.
“Black Math” takes this blues-punk meld another step further, starting with a galloping blues-rock beat and shifting gears Pixies-style into a slow, bruising guitar dirge. And, like the Pixies, two songs later is a moment of unabashed beauty, a delightful cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” “Ball and Biscuit” is full out blues, a seven-minute jam with some of the spikiest guitar White has ever unleashed. “The Air Near My Fingers” has a late 1960s vibe to it, a Troggs or Them-like feel-good beat attached to some pummeling guitar.
It may sound like there are equal but opposite forces at work here, but the songs come together surprisingly well. And the main reason is because whether the songs are based in blues, punk, pop or grunge (“Little Acorns” has a riff Corgan would kill for), the songwriting across the board is rock solid. It’s a great batch of tunes, plain and simple.
It’s easy to dismiss the White Stripes as a fad, part of that group of “garage” bands (Strokes, Hives, Vines, etc.) who were only lumped together in the first place because they didn’t fit into one of those neat categories for music that we’ve created. And good for them: Music was meant to be free, not caged or pigeonholed. Simply put, music needs a revolution every four or five years, and God knows we could use one right now. (Memo to the music industry: The real reason sales are down is not because of file sharing servers; it’s because music SUCKS.) Jack and Meg White may not think of themselves as the saviors of rock, and it would be presumptuous to give them that title without their permission. But Elephant is unquestionably a step in the right direction toward making music interesting again. Death to the whiners. Long live the White Stripes.