White Stripes continue to rock hard

Posted: June 19, 2007

When we last heard from Jack White, he was off playing with his buddy Brendan Benson in his other band, the Raconteurs. With that working holiday behind him, the red, white and black-wearing axman has come back to the White Stripes pasty-faced, rested and ready to rip.

Icky Thump is the White Stripes' sixth album and their heaviest. Jack, the bluesman carny-barker art-rocker, sounds juiced up, rejuvenated. Meg, his beatific pretend-sister drummer (long ago outed as his ex-wife), is as steadfastly metronomic as ever.

And from the outset, the duo unleashes a hellacious barrage of screaming fuzztone rock. The album thunders out of the blocks with the title track, which derives from a colloquialism of Lancashire in Northern England (home of Jack's second wife, Karen Elson) that expresses shock or excitement.

The White Stripes are 10 years into a career that began as a Detroit garage rock band - Jack, 31, now lives in Nashville, and Meg, 32, in L.A. The continually surprising thing is how they've managed to inhabit the mainstream while remaining so decidedly strange.

Icky's title track is a cryptic south-of-the-border travelogue that involves a red-headed senorita with one white eye, a wickedly sinister keyboard solo and Jack screeching out an uncharacteristically politicized point of view: "Americans, what, nothin' better to do?/ Why don't you kick yourself out, you're an immigrant, too!" (The song's video features border bricklayers building a "Great Wall of Mexico.")

That's far from the lone example of weirdness on Icky, an album whose corrosive guitar sound is rife with reverberations of Raw Power, the 1971 album by fellow Michigan mayhem mongers The Stooges (whose new album is called The Weirdness, but never mind).

The oddest duck would have to be "St. Andrew (The Battle Is in the Air)," a track with metal-edged bagpipe and spoken word (by Meg) that's a childlike plea to be saved - or, at least, not abandoned.

But there's also "Little Cream Soda," another crunching rocker in which Jack longs for a day when "all I wanted was my ice cream colder and a little cream soda, oh well, oh well." And "Rag and Bone," a John Lee Hooker-style talkin' blues boogie. The song aptly casts the duo as cultural garbage-pickers, omnivorously assembling an identity from cultural detritus on the prowl for "ice cream cones, catacombs, halfway homes, Twilight Zones, looking for Technics turntables to gramophones."

The Stripes - whose only area appearance on a tour headed to every state they've never played is July 27 at Wilmington's Grand Opera House - get away with their eccentricities partly because they package themselves so imaginatively. (Those are custom-made British "pearly kings and queens" outfits they're wearing on the Icky Thump cover, each decorated with 13,000 hand-sewn buttons. Leading one to wonder which is "The Hardest Button to Button," a reference to an earlier White Stripes hit.

They get away with being eccentric, too, because they rock so hard. Jack's lightning-fast Hammer of the Gods runs feed a classic-rock hunger for Jimmy Page's Led Zep licks. And at his best, Jack also serves up pop hooks along with the pummeling, nowhere on Icky more effectively than on the majestic scold "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)."

And the guitarist and songwriter - who'll play Elvis Presley in Walk Hard, a Judd Apatow comedy coming out next year - has plenty of other musical moves, such as the Celtic singalong "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn" that is Icky's most winning change of pace.

The White Stripes' musical magic tricks can also be as willful and gimmicky as their matching outfits. That's particularly true of "Conquest," a cover of a 1950 Patti Page song recast as flamenco kitsch that I've already heard more than I need to.

Icky's other failing is that when Jack came back from the Raconteurs (with whom he's recording a second album), he didn't bring quite enough catchy songs with him. And now that he's turned the volume knobs up to 11 again, the Stripes' 2005 timpani-flavored Get Behind Me, Satan is being interpreted as an indulgent experiment.

For all that album's playfulness, though, it was packed with satisfying, grabby tunes, as was White Blood Cells (2001), which remains the band's best. Icky comes up slightly short in that regard, but it compensates by slamming - and thumping - with a convulsive aggression that still delivers a shocking thrill.

To listen to an excerpt

from "Icky Thump" go to

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, In the Mix, at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.

Album Review

The White Stripes:

Icky Thump

Warner Bros./WEA. *** (out of four stars). Available

in stores today.

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