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The White Stripes:: Icky Thump (Album Review)

As soon as I decided to sit down and have a listen to this, my housemate – who is fond of blasting awful NME rock very loudly – put on White Blood Cells so loudly that, even at full volume, I couldn’t hear my newly-acquired Pickering Pick album coming out of my speakers any more. I’ve been putting up with this all year, so it’s not a source of anger for me any more. Instead, I tuned in, and it struck me how odd it was for me to hear a White Stripes album and enjoy it. Ever since the massively disappointing (to me, at least) Elephant, this band has only been enjoyable to me in short fits and spurts. “Blue Orchid” was awesome, “My Doorbell” awful, and so on. But here was a White Stripes that I could enjoy – stripped back, catchy, humourous.

“Icky Thump”, the first single, just sums all that post-Elephant inconsistency up. Damn good riff, some great lyrics (it’s hard not to get a kick out of Jack’s ‘You’re all immigrants too!’ rant) – this should be a great song, but for some reason, Jack White slaps a buttload of ugly, pointless guitar and amateurish clavioline all over it, in what seems like an insane attempt to totally ruin it. It’s growing on me, admittedly, but I still can’t help listening to this track without thinking what a God-awful mess it all is.

Thing is, I realy want to like the Stripes. The Detroit garage rock scene they came from is one I’m loving the more I find out about it (The Detroit Cobras haven’t been out of rotation on Planet Iai for at least 3 weeks), and although I quickly got bored of the scene they were made out to be a part of (see The Vines, The Hives, The Strokes, Kings of Leon, and whoever else my housemate likes), they’ve always seemed to have something that sets them apart, and they always looked the most likely to make a career out of their music. I’m probably TOO willing to embrace them, if anything, which makes things like “Icky Thump” so frustrating. This should be amazing, and thanks to whoever the dumb-*** is that suggested they should make the solos sound like Del Shannon playing “Runaway” backwards, it’s not.

Still, no such problems crop up again for a while. The Racontuers-esque “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” is excellent, a country-fuelled blast of classic rock that succeeds on every level, and serves as further proof that White’s lyrics are just getting better with time, and have taken a giant leap forward here. The epic, Muse-esque “Conquest” (a Patti Page cover) boasts a horn section, and is far more effective in its experimentation than just about anything on Get Behind Me, Satan, as well as being a much better cover version than their take on “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. “Bone Broke” could easily have slotted onto White Blood Cells, except for the lead guitar, which, just like the solo on “Icky Thump”, is juttering, nasal, and not a million miles away from Fred Durst’s attempts at shredding. Between all that is the more subdued “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues”, which isn’t spectacular, but is certainly good enough. So far so good.

But then, for whatever mental reason, the Stripes decide that they’re going to settle down in Scotland for a while. There’s nothing especially wrong with the mandolin and bagpipe-led “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” per se, but it’s incredibly cliche, and ill-fitting for both the band and album. “St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air)” continues the theme, except this time Meg takes spoken-word vocals, and Jack screeches all over the Celtic melody with a load of noisy guitar licks. It’s such a bizzare interlude, and frankly, it’s crap. Why the hell are these two songs here? Again, the Stripes frustrate their prospective fan. And things were going so well!

“Little Cream Soda” gets things back on track in style – this is classic White Stripes, sporting a lyric spiritually similar to “Little Room” and guitar parts that suggests Jimi Hendrix covering “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”. Although the vocals probably could have done with being more melodic, it’s hard not to caught up amdist the pyrotechnic blues riffs Jack conjures here. Alongside “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, it’s a definite highlight.

There’s but one more disruption to the album’s flow. “Rag and Bone” sees both Meg and Jack accosting somebody, rifling through their belongings trying to find out what they’re allowed to steal. Although this is again slightly too odd to be a highlight, it’s nice to know their sense of humour hasn’t gone too far astray. But, for that, we have two more keepers. The slide-guitar showcase “Catch Hell Blues” is a rare thing on a White Stripes album – a damn good track stuffed at the back end of the album. The other is “A Martyr For My Love For You”, which is unusually dark for the band, its acoustic intro a slight shock to the system after 8 tracks of amped-up blues (and two of Celtic nonsense). Yet, it unfolds, with an organ included in the mix, meshing perfectly into their sound. It may not quite be the Stripes operating at full speed, but they’re at least in 4th gear.

So, the story of me grappling with the White Stripes discography continues with an unexpected bullseye. I’m delighted to report that Icky Thump, despite the presence of some simply insane over-indulgence, is a great album. Right now I’d confidently place this on a par with White Blood Cells, which means that for now, I’m back on the bandwagon. After two records I didn’t care for in the slightest, I’m a card-carrying White Stripes fan again. Woo!
(by: Nick Butler)