Spin Control

June 17, 2007


The White Stripes, "Icky Thump" (Warner Bros.)

Critic's rating: 4 stars

There's a great moment in the middle of "Rag and Bone," the ninth track on the eagerly awaited sixth studio album from the White Stripes, that perfectly sums up the Detroit duo's aesthetic. Guitarist-vocalist Jack White and his ex-wife and drummer Meg are surveying the unspecified treasures in a mysterious mansion, which may or may not be set upon a hill. "They're just things that you don't want?" Jack asks in amazement. "I can use them! Meg can use them! We can do something with them! We can make something out of them!"

Blues, folk and other American roots musics have little resonance in underground rock today, at least outside the alternative-country sphere. But to the White Stripes, these are not only the influences that led to everything that followed, from Led Zeppelin to Shellac, but also enduring sources of emotional catharsis that remain the most vital and vibrant sounds in a musician's arsenal, and these dedicated minimalists continue to twist them into more tuneful, creative and exciting shapes than do any of their peers.

This is hardly to say that Jack and Meg have gone more purist here, though "Icky Thump" does return to the more harshly minimal guitar, drums and vocal basics after the textural experiments of "Get Behind Me, Satan" (2005). But Jack wants as few distractions as possible when wailing a tuneful personal lament such as "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)" or an angry political diatribe like the title track, which should be embraced as an anthem by the immigrants' rights movement. ("Well Americans, what, nothin' better to do?" Jack sings. "Why don't you kick yourself out? You're an immigrant, too!")

In terms of sonic invention and hidden pop hooks, the White Stripes are still topping themselves after six discs built from the most Spartan of ingredients. But the reason they're one of the best rock bands today is that whether they're incongruously merging mariachi to a male-bashing feminist screed ("Conquest"), sarcastically exploring the connections between Celtic balladry and country ("Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn") or unexpectedly segueing from there to a postmodern tape-noise pastiche ("St. Andrew (This Battle is in the Air)"), they never play with less intensity than as if their lives depended on it.