If you love all the records a band plunders for its influences, then you should love that band too, right? Well, if the White Stripes' sixth album in 10 years, "Icky Thump," is any indication, the answer is not necessarily yes.
The Detroit duo of Jack and Meg White coughs up the usual furball of in-jokes and influence-grabs here, reveling in ear-shattering, cement-walled garage rock, twisted white-boy blues, and the indulgence of left-leaning sonic and compositional whims that earns the music its "alternative" label.
The whole, however, ends up being a lot less than the sum of its parts.
The problems are many, and they plague "Icky Thump" for more than half of its 48 minutes and 23 seconds. The biggest of these is tough for any music journalist hoping to retain an aura of trendiness to cop to, but I'll do it anyway: Jack White's songs just aren't all that great. (Gasp!)
They're cool, to be sure, they have legitimate hooks just as surely, and interesting sounds fill them out throughout this new disc. None of this succeeds in grabbing the listener's attention for long enough to mask the paucity of melodic and harmonic substance in the pieces themselves, though. Much sound and fury, little significance, is the sad verdict.
With his side project, the Raconteurs, and as producer and musical director on Loretta Lynn's "Van Lear Rose," White has given ample evidence of his abilities as a crafter of songs and conjurer of recording studio magic of the darkly organic variety. Certainly, there are moments during "Icky Thump" when that same artist peeks through the murk. "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" is close to brilliant, both musically -- where it veers close to the garagey power-pop White and Brendan Benson alchemized in the Raconteurs -- and lyrically, where White directs his clever pen and venomous tongue toward a sycophantic lover.
Would that 10 more tracks as winsome as this one filled "Thump's" clunky trunk.
Instead we're offered the comparative let-down of the title tune, which wastes a great riff, some twisted electric guitar manipulations, and one of White's best Bobcat Goldthwaite-on-a-whiskey-bender vocals on a tune that senselessly shifts rhythm and thuds along on the flat tire of Meg White's primitive drumming, with no direction home. The result is a piece that sounds like a bad Led Zeppelin rehearsal tape. (The song is almost redeemed by a particularly incisive White lyric -- "White Americans, what?/Nothing better to do?/Why don't you kick yourself out, you're an immigrant too" should've been saved for a song worthy of its bilious brilliance.)
Which brings us to the disc's second fatal flaw, one that is woven into the very fabric of the Stripes' existence.
The Whites made it big at least partly on the back of a shameless schtick, which found them pretending to be siblings, dressing only in red, white and black, and forgoing the simultaneous engine room and anchor of all rock music, the bass guitar. Sure, Jack's bizarrely affecting voice and attempts to reincarnate the Howlin' Wolf guitar sound for the modern age made the band interesting even if you couldn't see them. Clearly, however, the schtick had something to do with the band's success, a fact that the post-Stripes emergence of several drum-guitar, sans bass player duos underlines.
Schticks invariably wear thin, though, and this particular one certainly has. Meg's drumming is soggy at best, just plain bad at worst, and it weighs down the proceedings when it isn't flat-out derailing them. Why no bass on the majority of the tracks, still? It's missing, and its absence adds absolutely zero. In fact, the lack of bass makes many of these songs sound unfinished.
"300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" benefits from both the (barely felt) presence of skeletal bass and White's attention to detail, even if it is just a junkyard blues. "Bone Broke," by contrast, sounds like a couple of 12 year-olds jamming in their parents' basement, which isn't always a bad thing, but here -- well, there's just no real excuse for it.
Jack White is at his best, oddly enough, when he wraps himself around more wistful fare, like the altered folk traditionalism of "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn," a tune that might present one of the first known instances of garage-Celtic rock. The boozy bagpipes lend a dizzy elegance to the piece, and for once, Meg's lead-footed bass drum pulse serves the song.
These inspired moments are the exception on "Icky Thump," not the rule. Ultimately, they are not capable of redeeming it. The record, sadly, is a bit of a mess.
The White Stripes
Third Man/Warner Bros.
Review: Two stars (out of four)