'Thump' it up
On their infectious new disc, the White Stripes make merry in the musical junkyard
For somebody who micromanages his band's image down to the color scheme, Jack White comes off as one of the least packaged rock stars of his generation. Maybe you don't even think of him as a rock star. In many ways the singer, songwriter, and guitarist smacks of a pasty scholar or an eccentric mastermind. White doesn't exude much sex appeal. He isn't behaving badly, nor has he set out to save the world. The man seems genuinely immune to the demands of the marketplace, the cultivation of a fan base, and the rule that says artists are as worthy as their last new idea.
At 31, White is content to simply go about the business of channeling his blues obsession into artful, minimalist rock songs to play with his ex-wife, Meg White, the drummer in their band, the White Stripes. The duo's sixth album, "Icky Thump," comes out on Tuesday, and it's fantastic. Of course the previous five were pretty great, too. But something's different, and it's not just that the band has kissed goodbye the far-flung doodling of 2005's "Get Behind Me Satan." One imagines that Jack's yearlong excursion with pop-flavored side project the Raconteurs, his move from Detroit to Nashville, and the drama of starting a fam ily (with model Karen Elson) have combined to inspire fresh zeal -- and the biggest, nerviest, best-natured record the White Stripes have made.
The album kicks off with the title track and first single, a stomping, sinewy creature that conjures Led Zeppelin. Conveniently (considering the size of the lineup) and somewhat miraculously, Jack is Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Meg, while no John Bonham, provides simpatico thunder. She's formidable in her way, and also something of a blank: a primitive, intuitive drummer who knows that not playing is a critical part of keeping the beat.
Her spoken vocals on "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)" are deadpan bordering on vacuous. Happily, the song is just as surreal -- a screeching, avant-Celtic prayer for spiritual ascent littered with bagpipes. Bagpipe also turns up on " Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn," a thigh-slapper that celebrates -- this has to be a first for the garage rock canon -- the thistle. The pair of songs forms the album's centerpiece, a two-pronged tribute to Jack and Meg's Scottish ancestry. Or so they say. They also said they were brother and sister.
The other oddity here is "Conquest," a slice of spaghetti-western kitsch sung by Patti Page in the 1950s and recast by the White Stripes as a deranged collision between speed-metal guitar and mariachi trumpet. Let's call it thrash-flamenco, and note that Jack's musical imagination is as sharp as it is skewed.
His fondness for unlikely instrumental pairings adds strange force to songs like "I'm Slowly Turning Into You," a grimy rocker where Jack saw fit to layer resplendent church organ with what sounds to be a tuned chainsaw. That sense of adventure combines in fascinating ways with the artist's rigid rules of engagement, especially when Jack sends up his own love affair with history's musical junkyard on "Rag and Bone," a door-to-door collector's dialogue-strewn travelogue.
"It's just things you don't want, I can use them, Meg can use them, we can do something with them, we'll make something out of them, make some money out of them, at least," Jack rants, with a nearly audible grin, over a stomping blues.
The album winds down like a good party does: with a rumpled, contemplative crawl toward sunrise. "A Martyr for My Love for You" -- an inelegant mouthful of a refrain -- measures the dispiriting depths of an unrequited lover's sacrifice. Jack toggles heroically between woozy and fierce on the cautionary slide-guitar workout "Catch Hell Blues," and finally hangs it up for a humble acoustic, and homespun words of wisdom, on "Effect and Cause."
This being an album and not a party, the fun doesn't have to stop. Some days you'll want to set "Little Cream Soda" on a loop for no other reason than to hear Jack's thrillingly disaffected "oh well" at the close of each phrase. The song is a merciless excursion into the belly of a surf-metal beast, and an even harsher gaze into the existential void -- just the sort of blues a rock star can sink his teeth into.
The White Stripes perform at Agganis Arena on July 23.