CD: The White Stripes, Elephant


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Recently, there has been much talk of the New Rock Revolution. The music press claims that a host of young guitar bands, invariably called things like the Thrills or the Kills, are poised to burst from the margins, capture the national consciousness and rid the charts of manufactured pop, novelty dance and corporate rock.

Even broadsheets have proclaimed that musical regime change is afoot. Possessed by the spirit of Ned Ludd, one august critic recently denounced technology as "nonsense", and claimed "the New Rock Revolution won't be doing with any of that". Another announced that "the stage-school troupers dominating the top 40 now have competition from a more stirring source: short, shocking records made with electric guitars".

Not judging by this week's top 40. It features 15 manufactured pop singles, 10 hip-hop and R&B records, seven novelty dance tracks and six examples of horrible corporate rock. Some of the corporate rockers dress as punks, but they might as well dress as King Alfonso IV of Portugal for all the relevance it has to their music. There are two indie singles, by 1990s survivors Placebo and Saint Etienne, but no guitar-slinging sedition.

As ever, it seems, the handful of exciting "alternative" bands have about as much chance of storming the top 10 as they have of being elected to the Vatican Council. The New Rock Revolution will not be televised, because the public are still glued to Fame Academy.

In this light, Detroit duo the White Stripes appear unique, largely because people other than music journalists seem to like them. In fact, everybody seems to like them, from teenage moshers to grumpy fortysomethings given to dismissing modern music with a jaded frown.

They have appeared everywhere, from the Sun to Radio 4's Today programme: no band since Oasis has achieved such blanket approval. Sales are burgeoning. White Blood Cells, their third album, shifted almost a million copies. Elephant, their fourth, is 2003's most anticipated album. Reliably daft, the NME proclaimed it among the 100 best albums ever a month before its release.

The White Stripes have managed to distance themselves from the media brouhaha, claiming Elephant will be a disappointment, while simultaneously playing the media like a vintage Valco Airline guitar.

First Jack White announced their split, later claiming he had been misquoted. There was the obligatory commotion about internet piracy. The White Stripes' solution - sending out advance copies on vinyl - did nothing to curb the downloaders, but did create an instant rarity, provoke ferocious eBay bidding, and garner more press.

The duo's approach to publicity recalls the old Peter Cook sketch in which Greta Garbo sat on the roof of a car, bellowing through a loudhailer that she wanted to be alone. It is as contradictory as the popular image of the White Stripes' bluesy grunge as an unpretentious alternative to contrived modern rock.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more contrived band: Jack and Meg White sport uniforms on stage, pretend to be brother and sister, write mannered lyrics about courtly love and have recorded Elephant on vintage 1950s equipment. Quite why the White Stripes are viewed as grimily authentic, while the Strokes are derided as a kind of indie Backstreet Boys, remains a mystery.

But authenticity in rock is an overrated virtue. It certainly doesn't matter when an album sounds this strong.

Jack White has a point about progression: Elephant sticks close to the standard White Stripes design. Hulking blues riffs, barely controlled solos and the thrillingly primitive thwack of Meg White's drumming are still much in evidence.

Their approach is so ascetic that the slightest embellishment - Meg White's childlike vocals on Cold Cold Night, the occasional burst of bass on Seven Nation Army and The Hardest Button to Button - sounds like a radical departure. The backing vocals of There's No Home for You Here have prompted comparisons to Queen.

Somewhere, Freddie Mercury is tearing his moustache out, horrified at the very suggestion: mewling, noisy, it sounds exactly like the White Stripes with some backing vocalists.

The lyrics hit home, witty rather than affected: "I gave that horse a carrot so he'd break your foot," sniggers White on It's True That We Love One Another. The guitar playing occasionally makes you gasp, as when There's No Home For You Here explodes in a flurry of painfully high-pitched notes.

At those moments, the White Stripes' music seems almost elemental, their power undeniable: it is clear why they are the only band to have transcended the indie ghetto.

The duo have refined their sound until it is shatteringly effective. Nevertheless, Elephant sounds suspiciously like the White Stripes' apotheosis.

It is hard to fathom how much longer they can keep doing the same thing, or where they can take their self-consciously limited sound without undermining the reasons people like them.

Elephant is an album that seems guaranteed to put the White Stripes up there with the manufactured pop bands, novelty dance acts and corporate rockers. But how long their success will last is open to question.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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