June 4, 2005


The White Stripes Change Their Spots (KELEFA SANNEH, 5/29/05, NY Times)

MAYBE it's time to retire the term "retro-rock." Not because it doesn't fit but because it fits too much too well - it's becoming redundant. These days, rock tends to be retro by default, whether on the pop charts or on MP3 blogs. The million-selling Las Vegas band the Killers became a mainstream sensation by reviving the sound of 1980's new wave, while the beloved Scottish cult band Bloc Party became an underground sensation by . . . well, by reviving a different strand of 1980's new wave. From Gap commercials (where you can find the 18-year-old Joss Stone belting out the half-century-old "Night Time Is the Right Time") to indie record shops, rock 'n' roll nostalgia is everywhere. A young listener might well wonder what other kind of rock 'n' roll there is, and an older one might find that a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Only a few years ago, it was a mild shock to hear so many young bands sounding so old-fashioned. In 2001, when the Strokes released their galvanizing debut album, the garage-rock boom seemed like a sharp (and sometimes shrill) reaction to a mutating musical world. The Strokes' retro juggernaut was a strike against turntables and keyboards, rap-rock and electronica. And if the band sounded a bit like their favorite late-1970's punk forebears, that was part of the point: they were digging in their heels.

Of all the bands that emerged then, none dug in harder than the White Stripes, the Detroit duo that staked out a position on the extreme wing of retro. The guitarist Jack White and the drummer Meg White were rock 'n' roll refuseniks, determined to follow their own rigorous rules: no bass guitar, no clothes that weren't either red or white, no acknowledgment that they weren't really brother and sister. (As fans quickly discovered, they are a divorced couple.) Once the frantic garage-punk song "Fell in Love With a Girl" became a breakthrough hit, the White Stripes' image was set: they were rock 'n' roll's greatest primitivists, beloved (even, perhaps, by people who couldn't quite bring themselves to love the music) for their devotion to all things raw.

In 2003, the White Stripes left behind the Strokes and just about everyone else when they released "Elephant," a hit CD that even (or only) a Luddite could love.

It's great.

Little White truths: Inspired and determined, Jack White gets personal, crafting a White Stripes CD so surprising it recalls the Beatles' creative leap on "Rubber Soul." Here's how. (Robert Hilburn, June 5, 2005, LA Times)

The White Stripes' Jack White is ready for a break as he slips behind the wheel of his vintage four-seat Thunderbird and switches on the ignition. White has been working feverishly on a new album, and he is just days away from starting a grueling world tour.

The CD, "Get Behind Me Satan," is a a daring creative advance in which he and drummer Meg White have added layers of imagination and depth to what was an already thrilling sound.

Despite all the gloom surrounding the record industry about the way bottom-line consciousness at major labels is stifling creativity, White shows how a fiercely independent artist can still make music that is both cutting-edge and commercial. The Stripes' last album, 2003's "Elephant," sold 4 million copies worldwide and won an album of the year nomination in the Grammys.

In "Satan," which will be released Tuesday on Third Man/V2 Records, White sets aside his signature blistering guitar lines on most of the tracks. Marimbas dominate one song, grand piano and/or drums highlight others, and he mixes them in dazzlingly original ways.

The subject matter is more personal — anxious, even desperate looks at conflicts between innocence and morality on one side and compromise and betrayal on the other. Even in some of the album's gentlest moments, a guitar suddenly cuts through like a knife through a curtain. "It's probably the most cathartic record I've ever made," White says.

The creative leap in "Satan" is, in its way, reminiscent of the breakthrough the Beatles made in "Rubber Soul," the album that not only introduced more adult themes to the Beatles' compositions (the disarming vulnerability of "In My Life") but also new instrumental textures (mysterious sitar touches in the sophisticated "Norwegian Wood").

THE GIFT & THE CURSE: Jack White’s vexing brilliance. (SASHA FRERE-JONES, 2005-06-06, The New Yorker)
Jack White, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the White Stripes, started the duo, with Meg White on drums, in Detroit in 1997. The early albums were made with cheap gear on small budgets for Sympathy for the Record Industry, a respected indie label, and drew their inspiration from the blues, the most American of pop forms. While the group built an audience, White worked as an upholsterer, and the pair tinkered with their identities, teasing an increasingly adoring press with the myth of being siblings. (In fact, they were once married.) In 2001, the band signed with V2 Records, sold a sizable number of albums, and got its delightful, high-concept videos shown on MTV. (For “Fell in Love with a Girl,” the director Michel Gondry rendered the band entirely in Lego.) No longer re-covering couches, White played the celebrity as well as he had played the up-and-comer. He punched a singer whose records he had once produced, portrayed a travelling musician in the film “Cold Mountain,” and dated Renée Zellweger. Last year, he produced a comeback album of sorts for Loretta Lynn, a pretentious and well-meaning thing called “Van Lear Rose,” and when it won the award for Best Country Album he made a charmingly sheepish appearance with her at the Grammys. As they stood onstage, White remained respectfully behind Lynn, until she finally felt compelled to say, “Jack, come on here, baby!”

White is likable, and he’s genuinely and prodigiously talented. He sings in a high, warbling voice weighted with emotion and mysterious information, and he plays his red-and-white electric guitar as if he couldn’t control himself, making sounds that issue simultaneously from a noisy future and a long-gone American past—a time when pop music was learning how to walk and find its name. White’s songs are genetically purebred things, driven by simple words and a bouncy, conversational cadence that makes sense to casual listeners who couldn’t care less about the band’s coördinated red-and-white outfits, the self-imposed Constructivist Catholic-school uniforms. Even when a White Stripes song flirts with the recherché and abrasive, it sounds as if it had always been in the air, as if you knew how to sing it before you heard it—something an older brother must have shown you how to play one summer in the seventies, if you could just remember.

But White is as perverse as he is talented, and that keeps his albums, like the newest, “Get Behind Me Satan,” from being as fun as they are smart. For a taste of the sort of conceptual roadblocks Whiteis given to, look at how “Get Behind Me Satan” was created: most of the songs were written on piano, acoustic guitar, and marimba, even though the electric guitar is the instrument White truly understands; none of the songs were finished before the start of recording; and studio time was kept to a minimum (fourteen days for thirteen songs). The album’s press release notes that the single, “Blue Orchid,” was recorded only two weeks before it was released. These constraints are evidence that White thinks and reflects on his craft, and they certainly create a distinct White Stripes “brand,” but how much of this hokum helps the band make music or exploit White’s gifts? Is working fast necessarily a good thing? Is it as good for us as it is for him?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2005 11:59 PM

"Fell in Love" is one great rock and roll single. One of the marks of a great rock and roll single is that it can be made into a great R & B cover (Joss Stone again). Or Al Green's cover of "I want to hold your hand." Or Otis covering Satisfaction.

Speaking of retro, anyone else out there fall in love the Apples in Stereo's first couple of records? I've played 'em to death, but whenever the summer finally comes, I have to put on Stream Running Over. Summer finally came to Minneapolis this afternoon, for a few hours anyway.

Posted by: ted welter at May 29, 2005 11:12 PM

my secret shame; the Apple's "Signal In The Sky"

how the hell do you have a rock band without a bass ?! i know "When Doves Cry" doesn't have a bass on it, and i know the Door's didn't have a real bass (until "L.A. Woman" which not coincidentally is their best album) but those are rare exceptions.

maybe it's retro for some people, but some of us have been rocking a long time...hit it neal

Posted by: cjm at May 29, 2005 11:42 PM

I realize I'm much less knowledgeable than other posters, and I do have to admit, following my listening to a number of their pieces on Amazon, 30 second segments of course, I found they were much better than I'd thought they'd be from the NYT article.,
However, currently listening to "Crossroads" by 70's Cream and can't comprehend why White Stripes should be competing for my consumer $$'s

Posted by: Mike Daley at May 29, 2005 11:50 PM

I never really got into The Doors, as I was a "British rock or nothing" fellow in my teens. But I thought they simply used L.A. session men as bassists on their albums, but didn't use an actual bassist live, relying instead on Robbie Kreiger's keyboards and their bass pedals. (That's also the formula Led Zeppelin used when John Paul Jones switched from bass to keyboard in concert. On the other hand, they had John Bonham, the master of the bass drum--he gave them bottom end to spare!)

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at May 29, 2005 11:54 PM

Robbie Krieger--what was I thinking? He was their guitarist. That should have been Ray Manzarek who played keys for The Doors.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at May 30, 2005 12:04 AM

Ah, Cream. Clapton was much better when he was on drugs, no? If you like guitar-heavy blues rock, check out the Red Devils from the early 90s for something a little more recent.

When I saw Jeff Beck "warm up" Stevie Ray on his last tour, he just had a drummer and keyboard player. He said if the drummer is doing his job, the bass is superfluous. Not sure I agree, but they did play an excellent set, especially compared to Stevie Ray, who turned his set into a 12-step meeting interrupted by his Jimi impersonations.

Posted by: ted welter at May 30, 2005 8:32 AM

ed: guess i am lucky because i like(d) the british stuff and the america -- Caravan anyone ?

Posted by: cjm at May 30, 2005 11:39 AM

This is not that complicated. Now that I have kids, I have heard what they regard as their music. Most of it is just plain derivative. The rest of it is rap, which, IMHO, is not music.

Rock is simple music with a few cords and little rythmic variation. The genre had been mined out by the mid 1970s. Even then the few true musicians involved had started to drift towards jazz like Steely Dan with Aja in 1977. Paul Simon who is the best white rock musician of his generation, headed for the third world.

Every art form exists in a certain time and place, and when that milieu ends so does the creativity of the artists working in that genre. This does not mean that the art cannot be performed or understood at other times and in other places. Just that it will grow no more.

Rock had its day and it is over. Pop music needs to find new sources and forms.

Hopefully, it wont be this:

Mobile tune makes history By Thomas Crampton, International Herald Tribune, Saturday, May 28, 2005

PARIS A mobile phone ring tone based on the sound of a revving Swedish moped was expected to top the British singles chart on Sunday. Through Friday, "Crazy Frog Axel F," the first tune created for mobile phones to cross into mainstream music charts, was already outselling the new single of the group Coldplay by about four to one, the Official UK Charts Co. said. ...

HMV, the British music retailing chain, is selling the recording for 2.99, or $5.46.

"This song is incredibly irritating and puerile and we're still trying to understand why people like it," Gennaro Castaldo, a spokesman for HMV, said.

The original sound for the ring tone came from the high-pitched revving of a two-stroke motorcycle in Sweden recorded by 17-year-old Daniel Malmedahl in Sweden nearly a decade ago, according to Sue Harris, a publicist for the song. About five years after Malmedahl sent an e-mail message containing his moped MP3 recording to friends, it reached another Swede whom he had never met. That Swede, Erik Wernquist, used the noise as soundtrack to a cartoon entitled "The Annoying Thing" that featured a blue frog with a goofy grin, motorcycle helmet and leather jacket. Nearly two years later, the sound was picked up by a company specializing in ring tones, Jambal, and quickly became their most popular download, becoming known as the "crazy frog" ring tone.

This year, two German club disc jockeys, Reinhard Raith and Wolfgang Boss, mixed the noise in with "Axel F," a tune from the 1984 Eddie Murphy film "Beverly Hills Cop," and released it this week as a CD single. Other versions of it are available for sale on various Web sites.

The song and a video of the frog can be seen on www.axelfrog.com, which is the site of the ring tone company Jamster.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 31, 2005 1:36 AM

Robert S:

By your criteria, "rock music" had been "mined out" before Elvis (by everyone from Robert Johnson to Chuck Berry). Some of us think that Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and similar "FM rock" acts were insufferably pretentious and boring. That was what punk was all about. Paul Simon was never a rock musician--he was and is a middle-of-the-road pop tunesmith who borrows whatever idioms happen to be currently marketable(fake Folk, fake "ethnic" music, fake whatever). I can't think of one real rock song from Paul Simon--he's always been too politically correct and restrained to find the vein, much less mine it.

Now if you're looking for a virtuoso musician with encyclopedic knowledge of pop idioms who can also tear it up and tell a story with passion and immediacy, that's Richard Thompson. And he could always play circles around Paul Simon.

By the way, the White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan is a hoot. And you can dance to it.

Posted by: ted welter at June 2, 2005 12:12 PM

OJ: did you repost this?

Ted: Punk was insufferably loud and, lacking melody, hamony, and lyrics, boring.


That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 5, 2005 2:19 PM

Robert Schwartz:

Well, there's no accounting for taste. I guess I've never seen anyone dancing to Steely Dan, nor could I even imagine it. Which is one of the must-have elements of a great rock and roll single.

Loud? You say that like it's a bad thing...

Lyrics? I'd put up the lyrics from the Clash's London Calling against anything by 70s-era fm "rock" acts. For that matter, I'd put up the Sex Pistol's Bodies against any rock lyric, period. It's one of the few mass-market artifacts to tell the truth about abortion, with the appropriate disgust and anger that only rock and roll can provide. Another thing about great rock lyrics is that they don't usually hold up on the page, but:

She was a no-one who killed her baby
she sent her letters from the country
she was an animal
she was a bloody disgrace

Body I'm not an animal
Mummy I'm not an abortion

Dragged on a table in a factory
illegitimate place to be
in a packet in a lavatory
die little baby screaming

Body screaming f***ing bloody mess
it's not an animal it's an abortion

Body I'm not an animal
Body I'm not an abortion

Throbbing squirm, gurgling bloody mess
I'm not a discharge I'm not a loss in
protein I'm not a throbbing squirm Ah!


Melody? You must mean faux-jazz augmented seventh chords and noodling instrumentals. Fine in real jazz, but they have no place in rock and roll, which is by nature a minimalist craft. Rather than playing a lot of notes, the best rock and roll musicians play the *right note, and milk it for maximum emotion.

But you know the old saying about opinions. Like a certain body part which will remain unnamed on this PG-rated blog, everyone's got one.

On a more conciliatory note, could we at least agree on the Grateful Dead:

Q: What did the deadhead say when he ran out of dope?

A: "Hey, what's up with this crappy music?"

Posted by: ted welter at June 5, 2005 7:16 PM


Moved it up because of the review.

Posted by: oj at June 5, 2005 7:32 PM

May I propose that everyone take a listen to U2's "All Because of You." Ive never cared for U2. The guitars were tuned three octaves too high, and they were too much the darlings of the New York Times Sunday Magazine crowd and the likes of Dave Marsh, too ironic and politically correct.

Then I heard Vertigo. Someone writing in National Review called it a wonderful wall of noise. It is.

Then I heard All Because Of You, which out-vertigos Vertigo. It starts with the keening wail of that U2-trademark high-altitude guitar, then the bass and drums kick in and its like a cat shot off an aircraft carrier, a burst of absolute screaming energy. It simply rips for three and a half minutes, then slams to stop. Your immediate thought is, "Hey. That was fun. Let's do it again."

Its only after three or four rides on the roller coaster that you realize All Because Of You is also the Best Worship Song Ever: I saw You in the curve of the moon/In the shadows cast across my room/You heard me in my tune/When I just heard confusion.

It's Gospel . . . and it rips.

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 5, 2005 10:58 PM

U2 has many superb rock songs; there are a good 3 or 4 on "Achtung Baby" alone.

tedw: just because you don't like something doesn't make it bad. i am sure "Steely Dan" will survive fine without your support, and that the many non-hippy listeners of the "Grateful Dead" will somehow keep on enjoying their music without your approval. do you write for a college paper ?

Posted by: cjm at June 6, 2005 10:18 AM

U2's best song is about an assassination.

Posted by: oj at June 6, 2005 11:34 AM


Of course the Steely Dan catalogue will survive without my support. Probably longer than Britney's catalogue, most assuredly not as long as Chuck Berry's catalogue. And Steely Dan may not be "bad," but they never made a rock and roll single that I can recall.

I was merely responding to RS's assertion that the apex of rock and roll had been reached in the 70s with Steely Dan--a soft pop group. Please. Nothing against soft pop--I liked the Beatles and XTC and even some of the early Simon and Garfunkel, but hardly any of it can be called rock and roll. My definition is not as narrow as OJs--I don't think rock is limited loud misogynistic music that can't be danced to. I think rock is loud music with 4/4 beat that is aimed at the hips rather than the head. If it has much more than 3 cords or 5/7 time signatures, it probably isn't rock.

And no, I don't write for a college newspaper. The pay for writing computer manuals that nobody reads is much better than that for writing music criticism that nobody reads. I learned this from an old friend who did both (right around the time I dropped out in the early 80s).

Currently I'm playing Gillian Welch records to death (not rock). And I also like the White Stripes (rock). I'm even digging the Decembrists, who are pretty good at making arty rock (which I usually can't stand). It just bugs me when people opine that music hasn't "progressed" since they were in college--and a large number of these people seem to like Steely Dan or the Grateful Dead.

Posted by: ted welter at June 7, 2005 1:43 AM

Everyone knows it was reached with The Clash, whose Train in Vain is the perfect rock song.

Posted by: oj at June 7, 2005 7:45 AM

OJ: Close. Right band, wrong song. Given the derivative aesthetic of rock, you must choose a cover. And the Clash's covers of "I Fought the Law" and "Brand New Cadillac" are just about perfect. Either will do. "Brand New Cadillac" even meets your misogynist criteria, but you can dance to it (oh yes).

Did Strummer stop in your time zone on his last tour? I caught him in a small club here in Mpls. and it was great. He inspired my nephew to launch a Clash/Ramones cover band called the Strummones.

Posted by: ted welter at June 7, 2005 8:15 AM