ecently, it seems as though all a band needs to be declared the saviors of rock and roll is the ability to turn it up a notch. For whatever reasons, the media have been desperate for proof that good, ol’ fashioned rock and roll can stand up in innovation to other, perhaps more vital, genres and haven’t stopped to ask questions deeper than whether the White Stripes are the next Strokes or vice versa. So far the crusade is a failure: while it’s certainly been fun to have around, a garage rock revival hardly seems the way to revive an often stiflingly traditionalist genre.
That’s not to say it isn’t good music, of course. It’s just hard to understand when “RAWK” became such a commodity that having it made one impervious to critical analysis. These bands (the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Modey Lemon, etc.) are almost exclusively mundane in both form and skill. Thus they are left to get by on style and swagger alone.
Which makes the White Stripes the best of the bunch. Their forms are all traditional, and their musicianship is perhaps even more mundane than that of their peers. But Jack White, with the voice of an 8-year old Robert Plant, can out-swagger them all. And in terms of style, besides being snappy dressers, they’re much more varied than any of the competing brands, making their albums the only ones that don’t split up evenly into singles and filler.
White Blood Cells has the rare distinction (in this company) of actually getting better upon repeated listens. The first time through, it’s hard to see past “Fell in Love With a Girl”. The most directly garage-rock moment on the album, it’s also an early candidate for single of the decade. I may not have ever gotten around to the rest of the album were it not for “Little Room”, a quirky, jazzy little number that prophetically rationalizes major-label jumping.
But the rest of the album deserves the attention: “Hotel Yorba” and “I’m Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman” are almost as immediate, and “The Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” surprise with their subtlety and mastery of dynamics. And things are tied together with a half-sexy, half-child-like swagger that drips with self-deprecation (reference the lowercase “i”’s on the album cover, conjuring a Cummings-esque combination of stylized self-disregard and subtle sexuality).
Things aren’t perfect, of course. The damn thing’s too long, with it’s 16 tracks easily editable into 12 simply terrific ones. With the frequency of their b-side output, it’s hard to understand why the White's felt the need to cram some of this crap (“Offend in Every Way”, “I Think I Smell a Rat”) on here. With the guitar playing and drumming non-descript to the extreme, the Stripes pretty much live and die on the vitality of Jack White’s vocal lines. When they fall flat, you’d rather be listening to almost any other band.
That said, sooner or later this revival will pass us by. Not that I’m in any hurry: it’s all great fun as I’m concerned. When it does, we’ll be left with one hell of a singles compilation. Beyond that, we might (rightfully) remember nothing at all, excepting White Blood Cells, the most accomplished album from the movement’s (?) most accomplished members (and it’s only members who understand Zeppelin).
Reviewed by: Ryan Hamilton
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01