The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Icky Thump (2007)

B+ 

1. Icky Thump 2. You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told) 3. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues 4. Conquest 5. Bone Broke 6. Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn 7. St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air) 8. Little Cream Soda 9. Rag And Bone 10. I’m Slowly Turning Into You 11. A Martyr For My Love For You 12. Catch Hell Blues 13. Effect And Cause

 

The rompin’ stompin’ White Stripes are back! After his 2006 soiree with his newly formed other band, the Raconteurs, Jack returned to Meg’s welcoming bosom energized, in fantastic voice, and ready to bring the rock like the old days. Indeed, the fact that Jack spent a year playing with three guys who could do things musically besides go “boom boom boom” on a tom tom greatly informs Icky Thump. The Stripes now sound like far more of a regular band than ever, and any reticence to expand very far beyond a core guitar/drums/vocals setup has almost completely evaporated. Instruments that appear on this album include synthesizer, clavioline, bagpipes, mandolin, trumpet and normal 4/4 drums (!). I imagine that many of the band’s more puritanical fans were upset about all this stuff, but I’m pretty much fine with it – I enjoy listening to the White Stripes without having to wonder how much better their songs would sound with more people and a good drummer. I guess the people out there like me who think like that go to the Raconteurs to get their satisfaction, while the hardcore Stripes fans just sit around sucking candy cane dildos and listening to the debut album all day. Icky Thump tries its hardest to satisfy both parties—i.e. be bipartisan—which, as we all know, is typically a recipe for fully satisfying neither. For example, here is my impression of Obama and John Boehner ordering a pizza:

Obama: Say John, I’ve been meaning to ask you: how did you get your calves to be so freakishly toned?

Boehner: It’s all about the Stairmaster, man. Also, I eat a lot of pizza. Pizza goes straight to your calves.

Obama: Well, let’s order a pizza, then!

Boehner: OK, that sounds pretty good.

Obama: What toppings do you want on it?

Boehner: Pineapple, avocado, mayonnaise, whale blubber, a dead bird, half a tank of gasoline, Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen head, and a single sprig of parsley.

Obama: Gee, John, that sounds a little unappetizing.

Boehner: Mr. President, the American people are fed up with the way pizza is made in Washington. They demand pineapple, avocado, mayonnaise, whale blubber, a dead bird, half a tank of gasoline, Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen head, and a single sprig of parsley on their pizza and I won’t stand for anything else.

Obama: OK, how about this. We can get a pizza with half pineapple, avocado, mayonnaise, whale blubber, a dead bird, half a tank of gasoline, Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen head, and a single sprig of parsley, and half pepperoni. That sounds like a pretty fair compromise, no?

Boehner: *starts crying* But… but… job creators… taxes… Reagan…

Obama: OK, OK. We’ll do it your way. Just please stop crying.

Boehner: *sniffles* You mean it?

Obama: Yeah. All I request is that the pizza not have parsley on it.

Boehner: Done.

Obama: I applaud this historic bipartisan agreement.

At times, the guitar ‘n drums “just like the old days!” portions of Icky Thump do sound a little stagnant. The loud, crashing “Bone Broke” could have been on their debut, for instance, which may cause hardcore fans to rejoice, but to me, its just a regressive exercise; it would’ve been one of the worst songs on the first album anyway. “Little Cream Soda” really does originate from an earlier era of the band – they improvised the foreboding “Seven Nation Army”-like riff on stage in 2003 and then forgot about it, only to be reminded of it four years later when they heard it on a bootleg owned by Jack’s cousin or mistress or pot dealer or something. I can’t remember. It certainly doesn’t remind me of any previous White Stripes song, since it basically sounds like Metallica, if you can believe that, but it doesn’t sound like Jack spent a whole lot of time developing the song beyond the initial literally-made-up-in-five-seconds idea. Like, giving it a melody. That would’ve been nice. But no matter, for elsewhere he proves he can still strip down effectively (I mean musically, perv). The red hot slide guitar showcase “Catch Hell Blues” would’ve been a fine addition to De Stijl, while the good time country acoustic closer “Effect And Cause” is worthy of its lineage to “Hotel Yorba.”

As for the other end of the spectrum, I applaud their adventurousness in using several weird instruments, but the tracks on which they are featured are entertaining but overblown novelty songs. Like “Conquest,” a completely ridiculous cover of a Patti Page song from the 50s featuring bullfight-ready Mariachi horns, a squealing guitar/trumpet duel, and Jack bellowing abrasively like a pack of hungry chihuahuas are chewing at his nutsack. It’s hilarious. Good? Eh. But fun? Hell yeah! Similarly, the bagpipe-adorned “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” comes across as a bombastic parody of an Irish folk song, featuring Rutles-esque lines like “The silver birches pierce through an icy fog/Which covers the ground most daily/And the angels which carry St. Andrew high/Are singing a tune most gaily.” At least I think it’s supposed to be funny. With Jack, his sense of humor is typically either really, really odd or nonexistent, so you never know. But there’s a whole lot more blatant humor on Icky Thump than on any other Stripes album. I’ve never heard them sound like they’re having as much fun as they are on “Rag And Bone,” which consists of Jack laying down some wicked John Lee Hooker riffs while he and Meg exchange charming, witty banter about stealing junk from people’s yards. Maybe we have to endure some novelty to hear them crack a smile, but I don’t mind too much.

The magic, of course, mostly lies between the two extremes. When they take pretty typical White Stripes-sounding songs and, you know spruce them up a little. Like the aptly named title track, perhaps the best song the band ever did, which combines a stomping guitar riff not dissimilar to that of “Jimmy The Exploder” with the manic bleeping of a clavioline, which is apparently some sort of archaic synthesizer precursor. It even throws in some topical lyrics to boot. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is supercatchy country rock that shits on the entirety of the Eagles’ catalog, while the maturity anthem “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is one of the most carefully arranged and intriguingly lovely moments in the band’s catalog. Yes, it’s harder to imagine them doing these songs with just the two of them on stage than any of their previous songs other than “There’s No Home For You Here,” but I’m not a reviewing a White Stripes concert here, am I? No, I’m not. I can’t do that because Meg has anxiety/would rather drink a beer than play a concert.

One note on the production: I’m no audiophile, and I typically don’t care all that much about modern recording techniques like dynamic overcompression, but even I can’t help but notice that this album sounds terrible. Everything is horribly distorted, and the record’s loudest moments come close to just sounding like white noise (I’m thinking of the chaotic parts of “Bone Broke” or the heavy, rocking sections of “Outpour Blues” especially). Again, it doesn’t bother me personally that much, but it’s just weird that Jack “Analog Creampie” White (ooh, that’s what they call a callback in the biz) would succumb to the worst tendency of music recording in the digital age. It’s also weird that this is the last White Stripes album. Say bye bye, White Stripes! Bye bye! Bye bye bye!

I really gotta lay off the *NSYNC references.



One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    I love this record [save St. Andrew, maybe] and I think it’s a testament to the band’s appeal that a lot of the songs you cite here as your favourites are some of my least favourites and vice versa.

    I also have no idea what people are talking about when they say the production quality of this album is shitty. Maybe I’m just an idiot or maybe it’s because I haven’t listened to Icky Thump on headphones, but it sounds fine to me.

    As for this being the White Stripes last record, I think this was a strong note for them to end on [and thank God they didn’t call it quits after GBMS and have THAT being the bookend of their catalog]. As much as I would’ve liked to see the White Stripes make more music, it was probably time and better to end it while things are good than drag it out for eighty million years and produce shitty records all along the way!


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