It's been a long time since I've wanted to hear an album every day, let alone more than once a day. Sure, to make these review deadlines, I often have to listen to a record daily, but in so many cases, it's a chore. That's not a problem with White Blood Cells . In fact, the problem now is finding time for the next album to review; all I want to do is listen to the White Stripes. I've got it taped for my walkman in the classic cassette format-- it fits easily onto Side A of my 90-minute Maxell. I keep wasting precious battery power fast-forwarding through Side B so I can get back to White Blood Cells .
I love the rock and roll. There's always someone new coming along, taking that heavily rooted sound-- the music of the Gods-- and making the old beast sing anew. It's Christ and Prometheus, eternally dying and rising again. Jack and Meg White summon the Holy Spirit and channel it through 16 perfectly concise songs of longing, with dirty, distorted electric guitar cranked to maximum amplification, crashing, bruised drums, and little else. They don't innovate rock; they embody it. And whatever past form of the genre White Blood Cells invokes has been given a makeover and set loose to strut the lower east side's back alleys in its new clothes. Red and white clothes. (The Stripes could stand to vary the color schemes of their album covers.)
There's no denying that the White Stripes fall within the confines of the garage rock band. Their music is simple, stripped down and it howls the blues. But despite its simplicity, there's something here that goes so much deeper. Jack White's mangled guitar screams like a rabid catfight, its strings massacred to the point of snapping. Meg White's kit is bashed with such force you'd imagine her as some kind of incredible hulk, though in photos, she appears the prototypical indie girl-- waifish, with pigtails and a nasty smirk. Yet she whips all of her 98 pounds into a tornadic fury like E. Honda's hundred-hand slap.
Occasionally, Jack tosses an organ into the mix, or bangs on a piano like the Stones' Ian Stewart. But for the most part, White Blood Cells is instrumentally sparse, with only a guitar and drums. The last time I recall such a dense sound being wrung from rock's bare essentials was on Liz Phair's similarly Stones-inspired Exile in Guyville , though this record explores much raunchier sonic textures; rather than Phair's restrained but biting wit, Jack White opts to lay it all on the line, the unfiltered cynicism of an intelligent mind sent blaring through 1000 Hz of raw aggression.
White Blood Cells surges with classic rock's grittier moments, stomping around like the MC5 and, on the instrumental "Aluminum," Sabbath. The guitar echoes the second half of Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps . But Jack's vocals are pure indie rock-- bratty and unashamedly so-- and in his upper register, his voice yowls and cracks with pissed adolescence.
Virtually all of these songs address a distanced lover. Sometimes he's coming home to see her; other times she's done him some permanent wrong. The lyrics are succinct and direct, and poetic like an aged bluesman. On "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," he sings: "If you can hear a piano fall, you can hear me coming down the hall/ If I could just hear your pretty voice, I don't think I'd need to see at all." He concludes the song with, "Any man with a microphone can tell you what he loves the most/ And you know why you love at all if you're thinking of the Holy Ghost."
On the country hootenanny "Hotel Yorba," the Stripes reflect the grit of early Railroad Jerk-- a glee-filled boogie with Jack's voice breaking and whooping, almost on the verge of a yodel. "Fell in Love with a Girl" is frenzied and rollicking (the album's best), complete with Yardbirds-type "ahhaa's" and a joi de vivre tempered by the admission that trouble is sure to follow: "My left brain knows that all love is fleeting."
Indeed, many of the songs admit that the love is lost. On "The Union Forever," Jack White mourns, "It can't be love/ Because there is no love." The song is a riff on Citizen Kane , including a strange breakdown with sampled dialogue from the film. Here, the White Stripes are the most experimental they get, which is to say "not very," though the song reminds me of the ragged power of Royal Trux without the pointless artiness. Certainly, it would be nice to hear the White Stripes take this music in a new direction, but this band is all about the songs, and the songs are good enough to stand alone, sans-flashy effects and tape editing.
"The Same Boy You've Always Known" is another high point. For a ballad, it rocks harder than most bands' hard-rockers, yet it wrenches in its emotional impact. Jack White repeats certain key lines, straining his voice to impart meaning and feeling. Again, the state of the relationship in question is uncertain. The song ends uncommitted and terribly sad with, "If there's anything good about me/ I'm the only one who knows." How many bands have failed with entire albums of moroseness to only express the alienation of those two lines?
The closest thing to a dud on this record is "We're Going to Be Friends," a gentle, nostalgic ditty of innocent love and childhood. It's a little too pleasant, lacking any of the fear and confusion of those pre-double-digit years, but its softness gives the record's midpoint some time to inhale before another six exhalations of fire.
Finally, at the close of the album, Jack sits alone at the piano for "This Protector." Though its message is vague, there are implications of religion and loss: "You thought you heard a sound/ There's no one else around/ 300 people out in West Virginia/ Have no idea of all these thoughts that lie within you/ But now... now... now, now, now, NOW!" Now what? It's the floating resonance of the moment, the intensity of the feeling, that gives these words meaning.
White Blood Cells doesn't veer far from the formula of past White Stripes records; all are tense, sparse and jagged. But it's here that they've finally come into their own, where Jack and Meg White finally seem not only comfortable with the path they've chosen, but practiced, precise and able to convey the deepest sentiment in a single bound. It's hard to know at this point in the game where they'll head from here, but what matters is right now. And right now, I want to listen to this album again.
- Dan Kilian & Ryan Schreiber , August 24th, 2001