hen I see them plastered all over today’s music magazines as rock’s new saviors, I want to grab the offending article’s writer, shake him or her like I’m the only sane guy in an insane world (think 12 Monkeys) and yell “The White Stripes aren’t special!”, because, let’s face it, they’re not. Had they formed, released their records, and broken up five years ago, a hell of a lot of us wouldn’t know who they are. They’ve never recorded anything less than mediocre, but I can’t point to anything besides the 90 magical seconds of 2002’s best single, “Fell In Love With A Girl,” that points to brilliance. If anyone is going to save rock (from what, exactly, I don’t know) they’d better step up to the plate with more than the same handful of blues riffs, a modified Robert Plant yelp, and endearingly shoddy drumming. By this virtue, though, it’s entirely possible that they’re just the luckiest band in the world. If that’s true, then Elephant, their first record since curiously exploding into the mainstream sometime last year, is a monument to that luck. What other indie duo could travel the world to record an album with any instrument they would ever want and actually get rich for it? And what other band could be in the position to make the same album they’ve made thrice over and never for a second lose their savior status? Just one, apparently.
Although it somehow scored a slot in NME’s list of the top 100 albums of all time months ago, there’s nothing on Elephant that indicates that anyone will really remember it ten, or hell, even five years from now. By this point, calling a White Stripes record “their best yet” serves little to no purpose. The throbbing bass, Meg White vocal turns, and multi-tracked choirs may try to tell you otherwise, but when it comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to find any base differences between Elephant and White Blood Cells or De Stiljl, the two records that most would interchangeably call their zenith. In the end, with the winning formula the duo has undeniably concocted, that’s not really all that much of a bad thing, but it certainly calls into question why anyone other than the group’s hardcore fans should give this album more than the mere passing glance that it admittedly deserves.
From its opening bars of stop/start low end, to the motivational tape samples, to the aforementioned multi-tracking, Elephant just screams and begs to be viewed as a departure from the Stripes’ well-known approach. The problem is that in between all this commotion lie the same vintage jams that the group has trafficked in for years. “Seven Nation Army,” the opening track and first single, fares the best, with its muted insistency and Jack White’s inspired vocal turns. “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” a detached solo turn from Jack, is another highlight, calling to mind the darker reaches of The White Album (no pun intended.) “Cold, Cold Night” sees Meg take to the mic for the first time and, if nothing else, succeeds simply but not sucking. “It’s True That We Love One Another,” a countrified real-life exchange between the Whites and Holly Golightly breezes by not only on its cunning aplomb, but with some killer finger-snaps, to boot.
Yet, from there on out, it’s a veritable forest of recognizable licks and that same damn quarter-notes-on-the-ride-cymbal-two-and-four-on-the-snare drum part. “Hypnotize” is embarrassingly similar to “Fell In Love With A Girl,” but totally lacks the latter’s cool-as-fuck joie de vie. “The Air Near My Fingers” quickly calls to mind White Blood Cells’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” yet is devoid of much discernable thrill. “Black Math” nearly squanders a nice Motorhead-molded guitar boogie on a tired refrain that sounds good until you realize you’ve heard it before-- could’ve been on this record, but who really knows at this point. When it’s not spurting out flaming-hot, kick-ass guitar solos, the seven minute “Ball and A Biscuit” has its head turned closer to the now-mythical Blueshammer than Chuck Patton.Still, all of this makes it decidedly hard to really dub this album a failure, because it isn’t. It accomplishes almost everything it set out to do, and does so with mostly admirable results. I want to go on about how I can’t discern this from anything else in the band’s oeuvre, but I’m sure, with careful study, someone could argue for the presence of some unapparent sea change. All I can do is throw up my hands in the air and reach for something that doesn’t frustrate me so much. Maybe it’s White Blood Cells, but after so many critical spins through Elephant, that’s hardly a desirable option. But besides, with their luck, The White Stripes don’t need me, anyways.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01