CD Review of Icky Thump by The White Stripes

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Icky Thump
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Warner Bros. Records
Released: 2007
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By any definition, Jack White is one strange dude. Not so much in a bizarre way, but strange in a unique, even extraordinary way. Born John Gillis, he took Meg White’s last name in unorthodox fashion when the couple married in 1996. Divorced four years later, they not only remained musical allies but he kept her name. The White Stripes proceeded to conquer the alternative rock world and quickly become the industry’s high watermark for cool. Yes, NME’s original Cool List (2002) donned him the coolest person in rock. Jack told “60 Minutes” a couple years ago that he was accepted to a seminary and was set to become a priest, but at the last minute decided on public school instead because he had just gotten a new amplifier and was afraid the seminary wouldn’t allow him to take it with him. Pretty strange, huh?

Parlaying a brief career in the furniture upholstery business (a shop called “Your Furniture’s Not Dead”) where he wrote poetry and song lyrics inside furniture, Jack has not only written most of the White Stripes’ material but collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Loretta Lynn on her Grammy-nominated Van Lear Rose. He is working with Garbage’s Shirley Manson on her upcoming solo debut, and managed to squeeze out a plenty-worthy album with his side project the Raconteurs last year. The guy is a slave to rock and roll!

The Stripes’ well-documented shtick is omitting the customary bass guitar that most every other rock band on the planet implements. Their raw, edgy, ultra-low fidelity sound is amazingly simple, yet groundbreaking and complicated at the same time. Who knew that Jack used a mere whammy pedal on a 50-year-old guitar and amp to create the opening “bass line” of “Seven Nation Army?”

This strange brew continues to impress and build on past momentum with Icky Thump, a ragged concoction of ‘70s classic rock, Delta Blues, and acid metal delivered with full-on sonic bombast. Believe it or not, this is their first time with a major label, since their former home V2 Records closed its doors earlier in the year. While it’s no Elephant, this album is pretty familiar, even if the themes are newly political (“White Americans, what, Nothing better to do? / Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant, too!” White snaps on the title track). The distorted double-fuzzed guitars wail, per usual, as Meg’s fierce and crashing drums clock in strong as ever. “Conquest” is a fun little experiment with mariachi horns, and they even pull out bagpipes on a handful of cuts, including the Scottish ditty “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn.”

Unfortunately for anyone who loved White Blood Cells or Elephant for the undeniable focus on guitar, the true guitar rock moments within Icky Thump are fewer and farther between. “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” picks up right after the title track opener and burns strong, as does “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues,” in a more intermittent way. Sidebar: If it seems half this review is comprised of song titles, that’s because their 13 newest titles are largely overdone and blatantly wordy. At the end of the day, Icky Thump serves Jack White’s strange but oh-so-creative genius well. It comes on the heels of five very successful albums in roughly six years, not to mention the accomplished mission from the Raconteurs last year. The White Stripes are far from complacent, even in their less spectacular moments. It’s a pretty good, strange place to be.

~Red Rocker