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Get Behind Me Satan
Artist: The White Stripes
Label: V2
Length: 13 tracks

If Jack White knows anything, it’s how to write a great rock song. His band The White Stripes latest album Get Behind Me Satan opens with just such a song, the scathing but deceptively simple “Blue Orchid”. Utilizing the same basic power chords that made “Seven Nation Army” from Elephant so endearing to fans of stripped-down rock & roll, White delivers a fiery vocal performance over drummer Meg White’s hammering simplistic beat. “Blue Orchid” non-withstanding, Get Behind Me Satan is not the album fans wanted the White Stripes to make, and that’s why it’s so good. 

Released on the same date as Coldplay’s X & Y and Audioslave’s Out of Exile Get Behind Me Satan is a major departure from the White Stripes past efforts, in that band leader Jack White seems to have traded his guitar to Coldplay for a piano and picked up a xylophone and a marimba along the way. Of Course, that’s not to say that Get Behind Me Satan is totally devoid of guitar, but the instrument is hardly as prominent as it was on Elephant and White Blood Cells. However, these relatively alien instrumental textures, by White Stripes standards at least, make for an interesting group of songs. The piano-driven “My Doorbell” seems at first a slightly silly number dominated by lyrical whimsy, until the funky chorus gets the head bobbing. Indeed, many of these songs display Jack White’s ability to write incredible lyrics and minimalistic melodies, many resembling his classic “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground” from White Blood Cells. “As Ugly as I Seem” is the album’s centerpiece. A folky, self-depreciating song driven by White’s contemplative acoustic guitar and Meg White’s sparse percussion, it’s testament to how much Jack White has matured as a songwriter. “Red Rain” has some excellent Ry Cooder-influence slide guitar work driving the melody, which is echoed by a toy piano. In many ways, “Red Rain” is the best representation of what this album is about. 

White also takes the opportunity to return to the familiar territory he explored while contributing to the soundtrack of the dark Civil War epic Cold Mountain. With the brief, but enjoyable “Little Ghost”, White conjures up a humorous yarn about a man who’s fallen in love with a ghost that only he can see. The song is dowsed in a rollicking pre-Depression era melody, though it has been likened bluegrass by other reviewers. But “Little Ghost” harkens back to a much older time, at least thirty years before what is now called bluegrass began to take shape. 

Tongue-in-cheek humor is one of the albums’ strong suits. “Take, Take, Take” and “White Moon” reveal an infatuation with movie star Rita Hayworth. The former tells the story of a man with an obsessed with Hayworth who sees the red haired starlet in a bar and proceeds to get an autograph and a picture with her, amongst other celebrity/fan exchanges, stating after each one that “That was all that I needed”. She is gracious to him, but it’s not enough, and he ends up feeling dejected, convinced that she didn’t appreciate “how cool I was being” about the whole thing. For anyone who has had the opportunity to watch obsessive fans interact with their favorite celebrities, it’s eerie how close White comes to describing it. “I’m Lonely (but I ain’t that lonely yet)” continues in this vein, with White listing a series of absurd remedies to loneliness, and then dismissing them at the end of the verse by saying “I’m lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet.”

Get Behind Me Satan is not the logical successor to Elephant, in that it isn’t one hard-driving, radio-friendly rock & roll song after another. It does have its low points, too: “Instinct Blues” tries to recapture the intensity of “Ball And Biscuit,” but fails miserably. It’s a boring, seven-minute blues that doesn’t go anywhere. “Passive Manipulation”, Meg White’s sole vocal appearance on this album, falls short of Elephant’s “In The Cold, Cold Night” and “The Nurse” is the albums’ token odd-metered weird song, similar to Elephant’s “Black Math.” These shortcomings aside, Get Behind Me Satan is typical White Stripes and occupies a unique place in their catalog as an album ripe with experimentation and mostly excellent songwriting. 

Ben Hill 8/1/05

With both an expanded fan base and a devoted music press salivating at the prospect of a new album, could Jack and Meg replicate the intensity, abandon, mystery and humor of Elephant?  Well, mostly.  First song “Blue Orchid” would easily fit on Elephant.  Like “Black Math” or “The Hardest Button to Button,” it has a sleek but throaty riff ­ part glam metal, part blues ­ that in its brilliant familiarity seems to be lifted from the pages of rock history.

Second song “The Nurse” is a complete left turn, a weird, plodding number with marimbas and dour piano.  Across this come strafing bursts of guitar and drums that at first listen sound like they are out of time and from a different song completely, like a case of crossed wires.  Eventually the song attains some measure of coherence, but normal it ain't.  This is followed by another turn, this time a kind of garage Motown, in the charming and funny “My Doorbell.”  Sprightly piano chords and tambourine accompany Jack’s dating tales.  It’s noticeable early how the album revolves around piano much more than the last one.

But don’t think this is something completely new for Meg and Jack.  They’ve made a point in the past of saying that they don’t subscribe to the idea of reinventing themselves on each album (After all, does B. B. King?  Do The Rolling Stones?).  More evidence of their insistence on doing things the old-fashioned way.  Jack’s lyrics have the same time-warped quality ­ archaic and nostalgic, obsessive and strange.  There’s the same traditional approach to morality.  On “Passive Manipulation” Meg takes another stab at vocals, and runs counter to current mainstream culture, singing, “Women, listen to your mothers, don’t just succumb to the wishes of your brothers.”
The song has potential, but is sadly only a mere snippet.  They made a song out of “The Nurse.”  Surely they could have made a song out of this!

There may be fewer electric guitars than Elephant, but they are still red-raw and close, screeching and squealing.  The psychedelic Hendrix blues-rock is pushed to the limit on “Instinct Blues,” with a pummelling two-pronged attack like portions of “White Blood Cells.”

There’s also still the plundering from traditional American music (and then taking it into strange dimensions).  “Little Ghost” is like a left-over from Jack’s Cold Mountain sessions, a toe-tapping jig about an amorous encounter with an apparition (“When I held her I was merely holding air”), on which Jack performs group vocals with himself.  “Take Take Take” rattles acoustically like Wilco, and contains a seemingly random bell ringing halfway through that I admit on first listen had me running to the front
door to check who was there.

This is White Stripes to a T.  Right down to the Art Deco stylings of the artwork, Get Behind Me Satan is retro, but with Jack and Meg’s unique touch ­ always throwing in something from left-field.  They continue to open a door into their weird and wonderful little universe.

Nick Mattiske 9/20/2005



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