The White Stripes – White Blood Cells

White Blood Cells (2001)

B+

1. Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground 2. Hotel Yorba 3. I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman 4. Fell In Love With A Girl 5. Expecting 6. Little Room 7. The Union Forever 8. The Same Boy You’ve Always Known 9. We’re Going To Be Friends 10. Offend In Every Way 11. I Think I Smell A Rat 12. Aluminum 13. I Can’t Wait 14. Now Mary 15. I Can Learn 16. This Protector

 

The riffs get crunchier, the sound gets bigger, and the Stripes hit pay dirt. The difference between White Blood Cells and the band’s first two albums is pretty much the same as the difference between the Stones in ’64 and the Stones in ’69… the transition is made from “blues rock” to “classic rock.” The songs themselves are full-blooded 70s rock compositions, with a slightly fuller sound, as Jack has realized that it’s not the worst thing in the world to overdub an extra guitar or keyboard if a song needs it. So it’s obvious they’re ready for the big time. The album’s only real detriment is sequencing – it returns to the “way too many damn songs” formula of the debut, with the virtues of De Stijl’s conciseness apparently forgotten. An 11 or 12 song album would’ve been at least an easy A-… as is, it’s a low B+. I know what you’re thinking; who cares what grade it gets? It’s not like Jack White comes here and weeps over the fact that he doesn’t get straight A’s, right? But here’s the thing: he totally does. Without a good GPA, Jack is never gonna get into rock star grad school, and he’ll never be able to get produced by Rick Rubin/collaborate with Mos Def/sleep with Marianne Faithfull. You know, the types of activities reserved only for advanced rockers with PhDs in rock stardom. Based on the grades I give him, I have the power to keep all that from happening. I swear. So work hard, Jack! It’ll pay off!

Not only are there too many damn songs on the album, but the track sequencing is poor. The album is frontloaded beyond all logic, so the first four songs will make you think you’re about to hear one of the greatest albums ever made. “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is a full on anthem, with a sludgy riff irresistible to even to most fastidious of Zeppelinheads. Jack may have had the tone the pull this sort of thing before, but not the songwriting heft. If classic rock stations ever decide to update their playlists beyond 1987, “Dead Leaves” will be a staple. Maybe not to the level of “Dust In The Wind” or “Hotel California” or “More Than A Feeling,” but maybe like “Whole Lotta Love” or that Supertramp song with a harmonica. “Fell In Love With A Girl,” sounding like the greatest single the Buzzcocks never wrote, doesn’t need classic rock radio – it already had MTV. Michel Gondry’s sort of mindblowing Lego video for this extreme sugar buzz of a rocker broke the Stripes into the mainstream for the first time. I couldn’t imagine a song like it being hit 5 years before or after, but in 2001, I guess it was just the right time. In between “Dead Leaves” and “Girl” is the strong mid tempo rocker “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” which reveals, for the first time, Jack’s myopic obsession with the old-fashioned, and the outrageously fun, bouncy country sing-along “Hotel Yorba,” an ode to the seediest establishment in all of Detroit. I can only pity the hordes of Stripes fans who have made the pilgrimage there (myself included), only to find themselves locked up in a room ten minutes later doing meth with some guy who threatened them menacingly with a knife in the parking lot. If you must go, view it from afar. You’ll be glad you did.

Of course, when the first few songs on an album are head and shoulders above what follows, it can sometimes be hard to look forward to the rest. The magic definitely doesn’t dissipate after “Fell In Love With A Girl,” but it does appear more sporadically. Yes, there are times when Jack seems to bash away indiscriminately at riffs he obviously made up in 20 seconds (“Expecting,” “I Can Learn,” the awful, wordless “Aluminum,” which is the closest the Stripes ever came to metal). But when he puts real effort, his songwriting is quickly improving, and covers a wider range of moods than before. He’s able to sound pretty convincingly pissed off on the woozy Citizen Kane tribute “The Union Forever,” or when he goes all mafia on “I Think I Smell A Rat” with bracing, gunshot guitar. But his sweet, melodic innocence songs are his best yet – “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” buoyed by rolling Hammond organ, once again touches on the eminently relatable topic of teenage love. Fan favorite “We’re Going To Be Friends” is soft and gentle but ballsy as hell – I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it is to put a completely un-ironic children’s song on a rock album and not have it seem completely stupid. But it manages to evoke childlike wonder and naivety while making me nostalgic rather than making me cringe. Hell of a feat. Let’s just hope it’s not ruined by any potential future versions featuring children’s choirs, huh?

Once the inevitable White Stripes greatest hits collection comes out (they’ve been broken up for, what, nine months now? It’s long overdue), I suspect White Blood Cells will probably be the band’s most well-represented album on it. But if the scattershot sequencing and length nags at you like it does at me, there’s a very simple way to mitigate those issues: just stop listening after track 14, “Now Mary,” in order to avoid the sour ending of “I Can Learn” and the incompetently performed piano ballad “This Protector.” The ratio of great songs to filler will immediately shift in a favorable direction, and White Blood Cells will be a better album. But the great songs are strong enough that it’s already a pretty darn good one.



One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    B+? Really? REALLY?

    Okay, okay, you make some really valid points about the record being front-loaded. And for a long time, Aluminum was the only White Stripes song I ever skipped (but that’s because I was afraid of it – it reminded me of aliens). And I probably could have done without “Expecting”, “Now Mary”, “This Protector”, and maybe “Offend in Every Way”. So I guess the B+ is justified, but it’s hard for me to look past the strength of the strong songs. I would’ve given it an A-, but I am pretty severely biased. And this is only my third favorite Stripes record, after all, tied with De Stijl.


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