The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, April 06, 2003

The first question we have to ask ourselves is: why, on the sleeve of the new White Stripes LP Elephant, is the number 3 highlighted in red? We know that the red/white colour scheme is their brand definer, but why is such emphasis put on, of all numbers, 3? And the "E"s in the word "ELEPHANT" are similarly highlighted in red, in the form of a mirror-image "3." Is the significance of the red third number more directly relevant to the White Stripes' music than the unhappy hyperbole of "purity" which both artists and writers have decided to apply to them?

There may be a clue in the opening lyric of the song "Ball And Biscuit": "It's quite possible that I'm your third man girl." Note the absence of a comma in that sentence, and the consequent inadvertent references to both Graham Greene and androgyny. But a more direct explanation could be discerned in the sleevenote itself, which begins, portentously, "This album is dedicated to, and is for, and about the death of the sweetheart." Note that the "heart" of the word "sweet" is the letter E. But there, sadly, is more to it than that. The sleevenote continues, "We mourn the sweetheart's loss in a disgusting world of opportunistic, lottery ticket holders caring about nothing that is long term, only the cheap thrill, the kick, the for the moment pleasure, the easy way out, the bragging rights and trophy holding." We are reminded that sometimes it is the biggest braggarts who complain of the "bragging rights and trophy holding" of others. If Jack and Meg White are so set against this, then why comply in the in-your-face publicity that will almost certainly ensure a number one placing for Elephant in today's album chart? Why not just let those discover it who are worthy of discovering it?

The sleevenote eventually trails away into Cappuccino Kid territory. "Honesty in bloom, heart on sleeve, life ever exposed and safe" (the latter an oxymoron, surely?)..." Yes, that weary signifier "honesty," at this late stage. "Honesty" from a divorced couple who until this year were pretending to be brother and sister. Much, predictably, has been made of Purity, Passion and Power (three Ps which have been far more potentially lethal for post-war art than Larkin's dreaded trilogy of Pound, Picasso and Parker). The duo who entitled their second album De Stijl are certainly aware of this. So why comply? Certainly Elephant has already made several middle-aged music critics happy; being voted the 70th greatest album ever made in a recent NME poll before it had even been released (what a contrast to their previous list of 1985, of which Danny Kelly bemoaned the fact that, if the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy had been released two weeks earlier, it would have been one of the greatest records of all time. At least for the next seven or eight years).

On a sub-Marsalis tip, the sleeve proclaims - in red - "No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record." Just like Queen albums of old - "No synthesisers!" (get the West London cockiness of that exclamation mark). Much has been made of the fact that no item of recording equipment used in the making of Elephant was made after 1963. This is less of a dramatic sonic throwback than one would imagine. In fact, the recording quality here is that of a Rudy Van Gelder 1963 - drums crisp, guitars very discernibly struck. Remember also that 1963 was the year of, among other things, "Be My Baby," Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and Xenakis' Eonta - so the "purity" of "eight-track reel-to-reel" recording is something of a red herring. If anything, Elephant is a record which belongs in 1968 or 1972; comparisons like the Groundhogs' Split or Ten Years After's Cricklewood Green spring to mind.

But why a red 3? Is the absence of a third man in the White Stripes' music crucial or critical? Usually the trio format has proved the most flexible and desirable for either jazz or rock - too much yin-and-yang in duos, with four or more things start getting crowded - but a guitar/drums duo can move in one of two different directions. With the absence of a bass, both instruments have a greater responsibility for maintaining and developing rhythm simultaneously, and of course can, if they so wish, move into freer, less restricted areas (cf. the Derek Bailey/Han Bennink duos). Alternatively, if there is no bass to anchor the music, it can come across as losing or lacking some power or punch - make do and mend. So, in terms of the White Stripes, pre-digital production is essential to make the music sound more densely populated than it actually is (Mingus did the same trick on Black Saint; he utilised his three saxophonists in a V-form shape in the studio, with the tenor forward and the alto and baritone slightly towards the middleground - the resulting overtones made it sound like a full five-piece sax section, but could allow the band as a whole to display the flexibility of a small combo if required; though of course some overdubbing was also applied). Jack White (as producer), together with engineer Liam Watson, certainly does not set his marker down at 1935 or 1955 (or even standard turn-on-a-dime 1963 pop productions); he knows that, in order to work, we have to feel a least a modicum of force in what he and Meg are playing. The drumming is splendidly recorded; and one has to admit that Meg White is the newest in a distinguished line of deadpan but deadly efficient rock drummers (after Honey Lantree, Ringo Starr, Jet Black and Lindy Morrison). The snare/bass interplay goes off like a depth charge throughout.

But how is the actual music? One wishes, as tends to be the case, that the Stripes would downplay the finally irrelevant concept of "purity" (i.e. not Britney Spears) - for Elephant is a record which can only exist in relation to 2003. Even the ploy of sending out promo copies in double vinyl format acknowledges nowness; Jack White claims that he only wanted journalists who had a record player to review it, to recapture the magic of getting up, turning the record over, etc. There are several immediate problems with this ingenuous proposal; firstly, the real reason for sending out vinyl promos was to avoid internet piracy and a consequent non-number one album chart placing. So much for "Sympathy for the Record Industry." Secondly, the act of presenting the music, on vinyl, as a double album is in itself contrived; already Gavin Martin at Uncut has fallen for the bait and become all misty-eyed about the Great Lineage of Rock Double Albums Blonde Exile Calling On Main London Street - but the fact is that the total playing time of Elephant comes in at just under 50 minutes; in other words, it could easily have fitted onto one vinyl album (cf. the equally contrived "Side A" - with the A in red - motif which appears on the sleeve of the CD version). Thirdly, if they are so concerned about "purity" and "honesty," then why not put their royalties where their mouth is and release the album on vinyl only? One suspects that XL Records - the label which a dozen years ago were issuing unrepentantly futuristic records by the likes of T99 and Quadrophonia - would not have given them whatever advance they did give them had they gone down this route.

And, inevitably, the inherently tainted nature of "purity" impinges upon the music. "Seven Nation Army," the opening track and lead single, has an ever-so-slightly out-of-synch metal riff which sounds great on daytime radio, but somewhat less so on the hi-fi - Black Sabbath with the bottom (or the Butler?) missing. "I'm gonna fight 'em off/A seven nation army couldn't hold me back" which doesn't have any great relevance to The War but couldn't have existed without the foreknowledge of Public Enemy's Nation Of Millions. "Black Math" alternates unsatisfactorily between an epileptic two-step HM motif and slower "testifying" with Jack's voice sounding like a not especially desirable cross between Robert Plant and Jeff Buckley. Certainly Jack's vocalese is much more mannered than the straightforward post-Frank Black contralto whine of White Blood Cells- it's the Roger Daltrey disease of actually Trying To Sing Properly. "There's No Home For You Here" could almost be Queen, particularly its "Bohemian Rhapsody"-style multitracked chorus in the middle. And his rendition of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" is merely silly, as well as cruelly exposing his vocal limitations.

Meg takes over for the vocal on "In The Cold, Cold Night" (amusingly, the sleeve features, behind these lyrics, an archive shot of Cole Porter in pith helmet, grinning and lying in his grave (or a bath, or a horse trough). This is fairly atmospheric and moderately sensual, but finally jejeune when set next to anything on the new Cat Power record. "I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart" subsitutes Spectorish echoing piano for guitar to some effect. The most touching song here, though, is also the slowest and quietest: "You've Got Her In Your Pocket," the languid drift of which suggests a very profitable route for the Stripes to take, a despairing meditation on the futility of possessiveness whispered as a warning. One suspects, however, that they will be tempted/pressurised to follow the route of the aforementioned "Ball And Biscuit," an interminable and studium-filled variation on "Voodoo Chile" which also paraphrases Blind Willie Johnson, but completely misses the duende of the former and the quiet desperation of the latter (and this track also shows up Meg White's limitations; perhaps Jack should have got in Susie Ibarra on drums instead).

Thereafter we are mostly back in the familiar territory of White Blood Cells, and ominously these concluding songs work better than the preceding contrived attempts to break out of their formula. "The Hardest Button To Button" is propulsive rock, if that's what you like - though this writer often, and increasingly, feels that he would rather listen to the unforced mellow profundity of Lee Konitz or Paul Bley than any "rawk." Mort Crim's Twilight Zone-style spoken introduction sits ill with the very Thatcherite sentiments of "Little Acorns" ("The problems in hand/Are lighter than at heart...Be like the squirrel, girl/Give it a whirl" etc. - tell that to the citizens of Basra or Baghdad). Still, I have to confess that "Hypnotize" is a very effective and purposeful song (even though it's about stalking a girl - "If I may be so bold" indeed!). "The Air Near My Fingers" is worthy of the Stones, if the Stones are whom you dig; "Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine" suggests potential freeform waiting to burst out of its trad rock confirnes; and "Well It's True That We Love One Another," with its "I love Jack White like a little brother" drop-ins from one "Holly Golightly," confirms that nothing is more contrived than not being contrived.

Throughout the whole album, I kept thinking of another recent example of a record made on antique technology with "real" instruments by a female/male duo of indeterminate relationship. But note my gender order reversal - for I am thinking of Gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator), a record which managed to do everything the Stripes try to do, but without any of the hype or specious moral grandstanding, and which also managed to be the most avant-garde record of its year, and perhaps of this century to date.

For a different take on rock dualism, you might wish to investigate Wonderful Rainbow, the new, and apparently the most accessible, record from Lightning Bolt. This bass/drums/vocal duo comes across rather like the Stripes stripped of all their pop, which may be no good thing or no bad thing. The bass, through use of overtones, feedback and perhaps some studio trickery, manages to provide all the necessary functions of free-rock-metal guitar (the Boredoms meet Slayer, say Rough Trade), while the drums are restless and free-standing but always managing to nail the rhythm when required. Vocals are mixed so far back as to become indeterminate, and the scraps of lyrics barely legible on the sleeve suggest standard post-9/11 angst ("All the world's in flames/And we just play the game/It's all the same to you" etc.). But the music is purposeful and powerful; never more so than on the linked settlements of "2 Towers" and "On Fire" which suggest the barely suppressed hysteria of Sonny Sharrock on Pharaoh Sanders' Tauhid; grandiose motifs set against hypermanic harmolodic noise. There is one oasis of reflection in the very brief title track, which unexpectedly conjures up early Durutti Column; but even this respite is quickly subsumed into the terrible grandeur of the climactic "30,000 Monkies" whose cyclical guitar riffs, set against 16/8 drumming and endless, increasingly desperate crescendi, suggest a shotgun marriage between Ornette Coleman's "Rock The Clock" and Rush's "Spirit Of Radio." The concluding "Duel In The Deep" is as wracked and floundering as Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones stalking/killing each other at the climax of Duel In The Sun and crackles and screams its way out of a remarkable record. But, as with the White Stripes, can they go anywhere else after this?

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