Mainstream rock music was in kind of sorry state at the end of the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s. With the exception of Pearl Jam, most of the original grunge scene was over: Nirvana and Alice In Chains were suffering the devastating losses of their frontmen, and Soundgarden was about ready to hang it up, maybe for good – or so we thought. Most of the best grunge era bands that weren’t from Seattle, artists like The Smashing Pumpkins and The Stone Temple Pilots were also either fading away or also on the verge of breakup. The “post-grunge” bands that began to appear in the absence of the originals were largely sonically derivative, but lacking the authenticity, power, angst, and plain old chops of the original grunge era bands. To the extent that metal was a mainstream genre, the scene was mostly littered either by “rap-rock” acts which tended to cull the least interesting and moving aspects of both genres into kind of a dull, muddled musical bland stew, or “nu-metal” which was loud and aggressive but often at the expense of melody and harmony, and generally lacked any instrumental soloing.
I found none of this music particularly appealing, and as radio increasingly seemed to me to shift from rock to pop formats due to the success of late 90’s artists like The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, I found myself at somewhat of a loss when it came to new music – at least when I looked for it on the radio or on MTV. Was my love affair with new rock music finally over? Had it died out with the last gasps of breath from the grunge pop/rock acts that had so energized me during the 1990’s? To my good fortune, the answer was a resounding “no.” My love affair with new rock music was not over, it was merely dormant for a little while. And one of the bands that emerged from all the rubbish as a savior to me was a little band comprised of two members that would be known as “The White Stripes.”
The White Stripes had a hard, aggressive edginess to them, but remained tuneful and musical. They were full of big riffs and bold singing from lead singer Jack White, with Meg White admirably keeping up the beat as the band’s drummer. The first song I had ever heard by the band was “Fell In Love With a Girl,” off their 2001 set White Blood Cells, which started to pop up all over commercial rock radio with its high energy, distorted guitar charm, clocking in at a short 1:50 but packing a punch like a July 4th fireworks night at your local Major League baseball stadium. I was instantly ensnared by the band’s vigor and muscle, so I went out and did what any good music lover would do: I bought the album. It’s a great album, but not the one I want to focus on here.
The followup to White Blood Cells came out in 2003, while I was a junior in college and trying to decide what the hell I wanted to do with my post college life. I was vaguely aware that the Stripes had a new album coming out, but when the song “Seven Nation Army” exploded onto the national airwaves with its eminently memorable bass-like opening riff, I had a feeling that the band had definitely surpassed its previous effort and may be at the forefront of a whole new rock revolution. Well, the revolution never really materialized, but I was right in my assessment that the Stripes were about to drop a great album on the world like a bomb.
There’s a ton of great tracks on the album, not least of which is the album’s leadoff “Seven Nation Army.” “There’s No Home For You Here” is both amusing and emotionally charged, as Jack White sings forecfully:
I’m only waiting for the proper time to tell you
That it’s impossible to get along with you
It’s hard to look you in the face when we are talking
So it helps to have a mirror in the room…
There’s no home for you here girl, go away
Part of what I admire about the Stripes is their diversity, shifting from violent overdriven rockers to gentle piano ballads. “I Want To Be the Boy That Warms Your Mother’s Heart” is the latter, and is a gentle ode to the potential suitor who hopes to win over not just the love of his intended, but also of his intended mother-in-law, challenging as that may be.
The centerpiece of the album, however, is the 7:19 epic blues-rocker “Ball and Biscuit.” Before I heard this track, I really didn’t know what a fabulous guitar player Jack White was, as he generally restricts himself to rhythm guitar, and mostly in the three-chord punk rock vain or not overly intricate riffing. But apparently he was just holding back, because he lets the fireworks rip on this one. I think anyone who’s into the music of old-school Eric Clapton or Led Zeppelin could appreciate the beauty and power of this particular track, and my only regret about The White Stripes is that they didn’t produce more lengthy blues jams like this one.
Other highlights on the record include the Burt Bacharach / Hal David penned “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” heavily punked up here in a kind of classic, Velvet Underground sort of way. “The Air Near My Fingers” is a catchy major-chord rocker with lyrics like
Life is so boring
It’s really got me snoring
I’m wearing out the flooring
In a cheap motel
that hearken back to the existential anxiety and boredom of the best of the grunge bands.
The Stripes would go on to release several more great records before splitting up, and even now Jack White is pursuing excellent music as a solo artist and is also interested in preserving and curating great old school blues music. With so much to recommend them, I urge you to throw this baby on your record player ASAP if you haven’t already. And if you have, give it another spin for old times sake. It’s the definition of a true modern blues-rock classic.
– Brian R.