Are the White Stripes a blues band or just a sham?

Are the White Stripes a blues band or just a sham?

Are the White Stripes a blues band or just a sham?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 24 2003 4:17 PM

White Lies

Are the White Stripes a blues band or just a sham?

The White Stripes: A blues legend in the making?
The White Stripes: A blues legend in the making?

The centerpiece of the White Stripes' new album, Elephant, is the seven-minute "Ball and Biscuit," a grinding, gleefully suggestive blues. The Detroit duo has covered Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and other blues venerables and presents its own music as if it comes from a newly discovered cache of vintage 78s. Each of the 14 songs on Elephant has a catalog number, like recordings indexed by the Smithsonian Institution or the Library of Congress. The new album was recorded at a London eight-track studio with no equipment built after 1963, and in recent interviews, frontman Jack White has dismissed the idea of musical progress altogether.

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On the basis of these and other ploys, the White Stripes have been classified as a blues, roots, or back-to-basics act—the latest spin in a cycle that began around 1968, when Bob Dylan unplugged for John Wesley Harding and Paul McCartney decided the Beatles needed to "Get Back" to their live-band roots. The Stripes have been hailed as the earthy, direct, low-tech antidote to computer-generated teen pop and dance music. Yet the guitar-and-drums twosome has also been called "primitivist, not primitive" (the New York Times) and a band that "could have one heck of a career in marketing" (Entertainment Weekly). After all, this is a back-to-basics act that named its second album De Stijl, after a 1920s Dutch art movement whose minimalist palette apparently influenced the band's barber-pole attire (principally white and red, with black touches).

Clearly, the White Stripes aren't a strict blues-revival act. But there's a realm between certifiable authenticity and actionable fraud, and that's where the Stripes have planted their red-and-white flag. The twosome's exuberant shtick sometimes overshadows its music, but such myth-making is entirely in the tradition of the bluesmen who gave themselves epic aliases like Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. The Stripes' blues-based strut is wholehearted showmanship, not petty sham. And singer-songwriter Jack White's simple but versatile guitar playing is anything but a con.

The band's design consciousness isn't exactly typical of roots outfits, and one aspect of the band's self-generated legend is unprecedented: The former Jack Gillis initially passed as the little brother of drummer Meg White, who's actually his ex-wife. (He took her surname, which is not exactly a typical alpha-male move.) But while the Stripes don't look like earnest American blues archivists, they are reminiscent of the mid-'60s blues-rock bands that flowered in British art schools. It's fitting that the Stripes first made a big noise in the U.K., where the marriage of rock and artifice isn't regarded with such suspicion as on this side of the Atlantic.

Like the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things, the White Stripes are calculating popsters with a genuine regard for the blues. On Elephant, they cover not Leadbelly but Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." The Yardbirds also balanced pop and hard blues, and mutated into Led Zeppelin, who were British and psychedelic and still managed to convincingly channel the bluesman's bravado. Jack White is no more the natural man than Jimmy Page, but both know how to play a larger-than-life role—and play it like they believe it.

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The bluesman has always been a cocky, commanding, but not altogether credible figure. (Even Britain's New Musical Express, the originator of Stripesmania, has dubbed Jack "a difficult man to trust.") The blues may be steeped in suffering—notably the poverty and racial oppression of the Depression-era South—but the style's distinguishing attribute is swagger. This confidence is so potent that it has sometimes been identified as supernatural. It was said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his suddenly acquired mastery of the guitar.

Jack White plays the guitar well too, but he hasn't sold his soul to anyone. In an age when the charts are topped by heavily marketed corporate products, his White Stripes haven't even signed to a major label (although their current indie outlet, V2, is owned by billionaire balloonist Richard Branson). The Stripes have built a major-league presence from sass, skill, and an insistence on self-determination. Jack produces all the band's recordings, and doesn't use session musicians or anything but the most basic studio tricks to the augment the band's two-person sound.

The mythic bluesman doesn't need anyone, just the guitar in his arms and the hellhounds on his trail. (The ex-wife on drums is a new one.) And the independence-minded indie-rocker keeps things simple as a way of maintaining control. White stays true to both traditions, but it's not quite true that he doesn't believe in progress. Elephant is the band's most sonically diverse album: "Seven Nation Army" opens with a bass line, and "There's No Home for You Here" features an angelic choir. Yet these additions are all Jack White. The bass is really his guitar, treated with an octave pedal, and the choir is a gang of multitracked Jacks. The only outsider heard on the album—aside from a sample of Detroit-area radio commentator Mort Crim—is British vocalist Holly Golightly. She joins Jack and Meg in singing "Well It's True That We Love Each Other," a three-way tune that plays on the Stripes' sibling fiction by having Golightly proclaim that she loves Jack "like a little brother."

That Donny-and-Marie-and-Marie moment aside, most of the dialogue on Elephant is between Jack's voice and his guitar. This call-and-response structure is traditional in African-derived music, including the blues, but the Stripes' style also recalls the simple fills of rockabilly and old-time country and the curt, urgent squalls of punk. Juxtaposing guitar against his (and occasionally Meg's) voice, he's Harrison to his own Lennon, Marr to his own Morrissey (as in the Smiths, whose biggest American success, "How Soon Is Now," was a blues). While White's playing is economical, his range is impressive, from the distorted Brit-blues of "Ball and Biscuit" and the heavy-metal rockabilly of "Black Math" to the peals of buzzing noise that punctuate "There's No Home for You Here." Yet the guitarist never emulates those overreaching '70s blues-rock virtuosos who came to think they were playing jazz.

Jack White is so self-assured that he—unlike most bluesmen, save Robert Johnson—can spend much of his time detailing his romantic inadequacies. "Hypnotize" borrows the melody of "Secret Agent Man" to confess his inability to mesmerize a woman; "I Want To Be the Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart" despairs of winning mom's trust, lamenting that "it feels like everything I say is a lie."

Jack's skeptics would probably agree. But the White Stripes know that a big enough lie is indistinguishable from legend, and that a large enough boast is a form of poetry. With just drums, voice, and stinging guitar, the band is composing an elephant-sized saga.