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Elephant
Artist: The White Stripes
Label: Third Man
Length: 14 Tracks, 49 min 54 sec

At the first glance of the White Stripe's fourth full length studio album cover art, it appears to just be Jack and Meg sitting on an amp, with Meg crying and Jack looking provoked, with, of course, their trademark red, white, and black marquee color scheme.  But much like the music itself, there is much more going on here than you may want to think at first. Jack is holding some sort of white tubular device. Some small brown objects lay strewn around at Meg's feet, perhaps pain pills.  The chord from the amplifier runs underneath Meg's dress, across her bare feet. A small skull appears in the background, unnoticed by the musical duo, and apparently indifferent to its setting. The shadows play tricks all around them, but all Jack seems to care about is this mundane light bulb hanging two inches from his face.  What keys does this hold to the meaning of the album? It seems to mimic the artistry found in the music whose complexity unravels like the plot to a good psychological thriller with each progressive listen. 

The album starts off with a lone guitar tuned down like a bass.  The sound could belong in the 1960's, but it becomes apparent that this is a timeless sound, a sound which no decade could lay full claim to, and it also sounds like it's coming from the White Stripe's playing right there in your living room.  The song keeps returning to that bass line worthy of coming home to, while Jack White declares with a Joe Srummer like snarl, “I'm going to Wichita, far from this opera forevermore, I'm gonna work the straw, make the sweat drip out of every pore.”   The next song, “Black Math,” doesn't hesitate to kick the energy to a level that would be impressive even if it wasn't just two people creating the fury, and declares from the start, “Don't you think that I'm bound to react now? My fingers definitely turning to black now.” 

I'm very qualified to compare the original version of Burt Bacharach's “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself” to the White Stripes’ cover, but it's probably not much like this one.  It starts out innocently enough, with some pleasantly laid back guitar riffs, but doesn't take much time to unleash into a furious rage about lost love.  Jack White screams with an angry insistence that, “Like a summer rose needs the sun and rain, I need your sweet love, to beat love away. It's beautiful.”  Next (perhaps Jack needed a few moments to compose himself), Meg White takes the lead vocals on the eerie and beautiful “In the Cold, Cold Night.”   Something about the guitars’ wall of sound recalls the 60's, perhaps Janis Joplin, ethos.  When Jack returns he is as genuine in his tenderness as he was in his rage as his next two offerings bring something of a young Paul McCartney in their vocals and songwriting.  In “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart,” the title gives the story away and is indeed a fairly nice (maybe even cute) yearning of a young boy to win the favor of his girlfriend's mother.

The keystone of the album is the unbelievable “Ball and Biscuit.” The surprises of Elephant continue to pour out in this track as the White Stripe's nail a perfect, even classic sounding blues number.  They take the blues and make it their own, finding a perfect marriage of the two styles: 100% Blues 100% Garage Rock.  The lyrics: 

Let's have a ball girl
And take our sweet little time about it
Tell everyone in the place to just get out
We’ll get clean together
And I’ll find me a soapbox
Where I can shout it 
All beautifully incoherent, the blues guitar in the song does indeed take its sweet time about it, clocking in at over 7 minutes.  Jack White sounds at times like what you would get if B.B. King and Jimmy Page had a son and dropped him off at Howlin Wolf 's house for his upbringing. 

The next two tracks capture the ironic essence of the album's message.  The liner notes declare about the project, “This album is dedicated to, is for, and about the death of the sweetheart .  Behind the clever lyrics and timeless guitar riffs, the song seems to mourn the life of a rich family who has no love for each other, telling us, ‘Now we re a family, And we’re alright now, we got money and a little place, to fight now.’  Next is “Acorns” which is laughable in the irony of the opening spoken message. It sounds like something to wrap up an episode of Leave it to Beaver about a woman who overcomes her problems by breaking them into little pieces like a squirrel storing acorns for the winter. 

The penultimate track is “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine,” perfect driving song. Jack is in a furious concern about a girl's lack of reliance upon medication.  Once again, we're not exactly sure what the fuss is about, but Jack sure gets worked up over it.  To end the album on, “It's True That We Love One Another,” Jack and Meg are joined by Miss Holly Golightly. Jack and Holly get involved in a cute argument where each flirts with the notion of love, but can neither make up their mind to commit to this feeling.  This ends the album on a light note, and closes out with a comment after the song is over by Holly, “Was that jolly good? Jolly good, cup of tea then Bruce.“ A nice closing touch of British charm. 

I'm not sure what the White Stripe's were hoping to accomplish when they went to England with vintage equipment and an 8-track recorder. But it looks like they crossed the big pond and returned with the best album of 2003. Even for those who have been annoyed by the gimmickry exploits of the band in the past few recording will discover that there is nothing here but one classic song after another, and it has me declaring,  “Long live the red, black and white!” 

Matt Kilgore 4/30/03


 

   
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