Album: The White Stripes

Elephant, XL
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The Independent Culture

*

Just in case their back-to-basics rock'n'roll credibility was still in question after three albums of searing primitivism – oh, and to combat internet piracy, too – The White Stripes' fourth offering has been sent to reviewers as a vinyl double album. It reminds one of the mindset that prevailed from the Fifties to the Seventies, when music was generally digested in 20-minute side-long chunks, rather than the 70-minute endurance tests of today.

Elephant certainly offers a powerful reminder of the way fans would develop an intense intimacy with the three or four songs (sometimes less) on each side of classic doubles like Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Layla, Exile on Main Street, and more recently Screamadelica. This is nowhere more true than on the opening side, where the arrogant stride of "Seven Nation Army" – oddly, for a band that eschews bass, a bass- driven rocker – leads into the two-chord thrash of "Black Math", with the dismissive "There's No Home for You Here" bringing the side to a close. It's as condensed and exhilarating as any 10 minutes you'll hear this year.

Recorded in the computer-free zone of Liam Watson's Toe Rag Studio in London with, it's claimed, no equipment younger than 40 years old, Elephant proudly asserts the primacy of the raw over the cooked, seeking to derive as much intensity as possible from as few instruments (and as much spirit) as possible, and with the minimum number of machines between musicians and listeners. Despite the basic line-up – guitar and drums, plus occasional piano, organ or harmonica – the Stripes tackle a surprising range of approaches, from the slow, predatory blues of "Ball and Biscuit" through the garage-punk riffing of "Hypnotize" and the rolling raunch of "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" to the plaintive, Neil Young-ish folksy frailty of "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" – and further still, to the siren call of Meg White's "Cold, Cold Night", a second cousin of sorts to Mo Tucker's occasional vocal contributions to the Velvets.

The only worries about the duo's technical limitations come on the album's one cover, when the bucket in which Jack White is carrying the tune to "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" starts to leak badly. He's far more assured on songs written to fit his own range, with his world-weary tones and slide guitar on "I Want to Be the Boy" strongly recalling the late Rory Gallagher. The album ends with "It's True That We Love One Another", an acoustic duet with Holly Golightly that disguises a wry reflection on the perennial "siblings or partners?" rumours surrounding Jack and Meg. Nothing is revealed, of course.

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