The White Stripes-White Blood Cells (2001, Sympathy for the Record Industry)
I first heard of the White Stripes when Weird Al Yankovic included sections from “Fell In Love With a Girl” in his “Angry White Boy Polka” medley on 2003’s Poodle Hat, which I owned before I owned White Blood Cells. I don’t quite remember why I bought the album in the first place, although I have two theories. One: I had seen It Might Get Loud—the 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary that featured Jack White, The Edge (from some Irish band), and Jimmy Page (from some English band) talking about guitars and music—and been intrigued by White’s throwback ideas about guitar playing. This post is going to reference It Might Get Loud fairly heavily; it’s a good documentary that I’d recommend to any music fan. Two (and the more likely scenario): I wanted to add a bit more edge to my nerdy, white bread middle school style, and ordered a White Stripes t-shirt on Amazon. Not wanting to be a poser (the worst thing you could be in middle school in the mid/late 2000s), I ordered a White Stripes CD to go along with the shirt. The shirt was too small and I wore it maybe twice, but the album became one of my favorites.
Jack White seems like a fairly conservative guy. Not politically speaking, but more when it comes to his musical stylings and attitudes. Old-fashioned might be a better descriptor. The opening scene of It Might Get Loud features White (who is destined to be played by Johnny Depp one day) decked out in a vest, bowtie, and bowler hat, standing on a rickety porch, cows mooing in a field behind him, hammering together a crude, single-string electric guitar with not much more than a plank, a coke bottle, and some wire. He finishes his work, plugs in the contraption, and plays a snarling, atonal slide riff. “Who says you need to buy a guitar?” he asks before taking a drag from a cigarette. Cue opening credits. Personal responsibility!
When the Stripes were first starting out and even after they got famous, White was often seen onstage with a red Valco Airline guitar (made of plastic and available for $99 at Montgomery Ward back in the day.) Throughout It Might Get Loud, he makes it clear that he has nothing but disdain for fancy equipment and effects pedals, going so far as to drop his Airline on the ground and stomp on it because he wants to “fight” the guitar.
Finally, and most obviously, one simply needs to look at the MO of the White Stripes as evidence of White’s old-fangled tendencies. A two-person band (guitar and drums), most of their songs feature White playing good ol’ rock’n’roll riffs and yelping out vocals while his sister/ex-wife/who-knows/drummer Meg White hammers away at her drum kit like a giant toddler. Lyrically, Jack trends toward the traditional; you could picture him as Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life telling off greedy Mr. Potter when he proclaims “Well I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate,” on “The Union Forever.” His rhymes are often Vaudevillian in nature (“Elevator/See ya later,” “Umbrella/Fella,” “West Virginia/Within ya.” and he even spends the entirety of “I Think I Smell a Rat” telling off a whippersnapper for “Using your mother and father for a welcome mat.” Not your standard rock rebellion.
White Blood Cells sticks to the White Stripes formula, but does so with an impressive amount of variation. For a band that is so pared-down and relies so little on effects and overdubs, the effort does not feel one-note, and has almost no filler. The album features “Fell In Love With a Girl,” the band’s first mega-hit and easily its second most famous song behind 2003’s “Seven Nation Army,” and several other songs equal to or greater than it. Instant classic guitar riffs abound. For someone so talented, White does not often showboat, instead choosing to craft memorable, straightforward licks. A few that stick in the mind while listening: the opener “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” with it’s gate-crashing wallop of a chorus riff, the sarcastic stomp of “I’m Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman,” the major chord power balladry of “Same Boy You’ve Always Known,” and especially the wordless refrain in “Offend In Every Way,” which clues the listener in to White’s talent perhaps more so than any other track. I’ve spent many hours sitting in my old room at my parent’s place trying to master “Offend” on the electric.
Because the White Stripes are so limited when it comes to materials, it pays when they augment their standard sound with instrumental or experimental flourishes. The rollicking “Hotel Yorba” places acoustic strumming front and center, and the rustic sound is somehow not overpowered by Meg’s relentless crash cymbal. “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” features a subtle organ overdub, and album closer “This Protector” is a paranoid piano duet between the two Whites. In terms of song structure and musical ideas, the moody “The Union Forever” (spoken word interlude mid-song), the flamenco-tinged “I Think I Smell A Rat,” and the lumbering, feedback-heavy instrumental “Aluminum” provide variation.
“We’re Going to Be Friends” acts as a stand-in for the album, and in some ways, the band as a whole. A sweet and innocent acoustic ballad, it invokes images of early schooldays spent digging for bugs, singing, and learning the alphabet. In the hands of lesser artists, it could come off as cutesy or kitschy, much like the White Stripes themselves. The red and white color scheme, the guitar-and-drums-and-nothing-else setup, the off key vocals, Meg’s primitive drumming, Jack’s quirky-white-boy-plays-the-blues-shtick…the Stripes walk a fine line. They get away with it because the music is genuinely good; Meg’s drumming is simplistic enough that it actually becomes a strength, the primal rhythm to Jack’s more intricate guitar work, and Jack’s lyrics merge the anachronistic with the biting and just plain weird. The aesthetic was always a key piece to the band, but never the most important one, and that’s what makes the difference here.