The White Stripes: Elephant

The White Stripes

It's precisely because this album comes within spitting distance of greatness that it pisses me off, both because I want it to be great and because I'm tired of being told that it is. Yes, some of it rocks as hard as penitentiary dick. "The Hardest Button to Button" even redeems its stupid title--hard again, and not cute like buttons which is the downfall of the Stripes' soft side. But I still say if the White Stripes are going to save rock 'n' roll, they need a bass player, and for that matter, a drummer, a part-time song doctor, and a less affected singer.

Keep the guitar player, though, who's some kind of savant: fervent without being ostentatious, with a tone and sensibility that summons Link Wray or Otis Rush or Ron Asheton without making you wish they'd actually show up. Much of the group's ancestor worship, though, including a forced lyrical puerilism presented as boy-girl pop formalism, has the opposite effect. Theft is a cornerstone of rock 'n' roll, but when Jack White steals from "Gimme Some Truth" or "The Needle and the Damage Done" or "Secret Agent Man" or "Hit the Road Jack," well, that's when I reach for my 45s (okay, maybe not for "Secret Agent Man"). If this guy has all the pop savvy his scribbling sycophants claim, how come his most memorable hooks are the ones he borrows? (Remember, it was the Pretenders' ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah chorus that put "Fell in Love with a Girl" over the top.) And for a guy who likes but can't sing Burt Bacharach, White hasn't learned much about writing a melody with purpose, one that leads chord changes instead of following them with ovine fealty.

Speaking of sheep, there are loads of prog-rock dweebs and girls-can't-play pigs out there who think Meg White is a sucky drummer. They're right. And don't start that palaver about blues-garage-rock primitivism, because, just like there's a difference between lacking a bass and needing bass, there's a difference between simplicity and incompetence, between 1-2-3-4 rollin' and tumblin' and 1-2-oops!-4 plain old tumblin'. Yes, there's a noble rock 'n' roll tradition of glorious sloppiness, of recklessly accelerating tempos, of flubbed notes left on the record because some overall inspiration overrides them. There's also a noble rock 'n' roll tradition of sounding good. I can't be the only one who wishes America's Greatest Rock Band sounded good more often.

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