When this whole international-rock-star thing dries up for them a few years from now, Jack and Meg White could have one heck of a career in marketing. Rarely has a rock band made more effective use of attention-getting ploys. They’re half talented, literally (though, to be fair, drummer Meg has finally blossomed into near adequacy after a few years on the road), but the Detroit duo has used its canny knack for salesmanship to build a reputation as one of this moment’s most important groups.
Not that there aren’t hints of greatness on Elephant, the pair’s fourth album in as many years. Jack is a top-notch frontman, a charismatic yowler with a seemingly endless supply of brilliantly simplistic guitar riffs that often find fresh musical twists on tired rock & roll clichés. A front-loaded Jack White powerhouse, ”Elephant” is, for the first 20 minutes or so, a total blast (after which the energy wanes). Sludgy chugfest ”Black Math” is a guitar workout worthy of Thin Lizzy. ”There’s No Home for You Here” is perfectly dumb garage rock made radiant with a choir of multitracked vocals. A slow and spare cover of the Bacharach classic ”I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” sounds remarkably like Joan Jett’s metallic remake of ”Crimson and Clover.” And the wonderful ’70s-rock homage ”I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” finds Jack channeling Faces-era Rod Stewart, of all things.
That said, ”Elephant” also flaunts everything that’s contrived about the band — the gimmicks for which they’ve become better known than their actual music. Most obviously, there’s the brand-identifying red-and-white color combination, as if they were a sports team rather than a rock band (hey, if Chicago gets the Cubs and the White Sox, why can’t Detroit enjoy the Tigers and the White Stripes?). All six of the ”Elephant” covers released internationally are two-toned. Okay, guys, we get it. Red and white. On the album’s faux-folk closer, ”Well It’s True That We Love One Another,” Jack and Meg — who used to be married, but cooked up a lie about being siblings — winkingly allude to the were-they-hitched-or-not brouhaha. Guest vocalist Holly Golightly (a fixture on the British garage-rock scene) repeatedly coos to Jack that she loves him ”like a little brother.” Ha-ha. It’s an inane ditty made insufferable through self-referential silliness.
Of course, shtick has a proud tradition in primitive guitar rock — bands like Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Monks, and the New York Dolls have used wacky imagery to sell quality tunes — and it would be easy to overlook the media stunts if they didn’t prevent the music from living up to its potential. That’s why Jack’s refusal to work with a real rhythm section is so disappointing. The White Stripes famously have no bass player (although bass has made a few tantalizing cameos on their records, including ”Elephant”).
Fans seem to think this stubborn opposition to low-end makes them cooler. Maybe it does. But it certainly doesn’t make them better. It’s no coincidence that great bands tend to have great bass players — the four-string wizardry of John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, and John Paul Jones is more responsible for their groups’ sounds than many people realize. Even the most workmanlike root-note-playing sideman provides the glue that binds the beat to the tune. Bass is what makes a band sound like…well, a band; without it, rock music feels flat and one-dimensional. Think about it this way: The White Stripes get compared to Led Zeppelin a lot. Imagine ”Whole Lotta Love” as performed by just Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Meg White. Not a whole lotta fun.
Ironically, the most endearing thing about the White Stripes is the homespun earnestness of their self-promotional baloney. Beneath all the cheap tactics, Jack and Meg White seem like real music fans who just want their records to be heard. More power to them; at least their schemes were hatched in a living room, not a boardroom. If only the product were as consistently winning as the campaign, they’d really be onto something.