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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

A Review of White Blood Cells
by Nick Rombes ||
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White Blood Cells

A CD by The White Stripes.
Sympathy for the Record Industry, Long Beach, CA.

download "aluminum"
download "i think i smell a rat"
Every ten years or so, Detroit embarks on some failed Renaissance. In Almost Famous, the "Detroit Sucks" shirt that the Lester Bangs character wears pretty much sums it up, as well as all the secret love and affection that goes along with it. After all, it's hard to work up too much hate for a city that still hasn't cleaned away all the burned-out buildings from the '67 riots--that's got to count for something.
     The White Stripes, who hail from Detroit, play music that comes at you like the flaming shards of a crashing Molotov cocktail--for a moment (just long enough) you forget about your crummy, depraved city and think that maybe--just maybe--this Renaissance will stick. Some say they are part of the new "garage band" revival, but that's a cheap thing for rock snobs to say, the lazy resurrection of an old category that never worked anyway.
     On their most recent cd, White Blood Cells, The White Stripes unfold in a kind of exponential mathematical fury: Black Sabbath times Howlin Wolf times Nirvana times The Pixies times Iron Butterfly times Sonic Youth times Iggy Pop. If it's true that all great art refers at some point to the process of its own creation, then in almost every song here you can hear the White Stripes fighting against the past, the anxiety of influence. And that's the priceless tension you get when you shell out your 12 bucks: while every song reminds you of some other band, some other rock genre, it's not long (usually four or five seconds) before the Stripes have conquered it and made it into something new.
     The late Pauline Kael once wrote something to the effect that the sheer repetition of cultural forms makes cynics of us all sooner or later. Of course she was talking about movies, about how they are made over and over again for the same audience who is just turning 13 or 14 or 15 for the first time, while the poor critics have to see these same movies every year, and are disappointed that they haven't "advanced." The subversive secret behind her claim was that in the private darkness of the theater, kids develop their own aesthetic responses to film, abandoning or even working against the "official" responses expected of them by their parents and by school. But she said that back in 1969, when the difference between trash and art was still earnestly debated. Without an official culture to rebel against anymore (what, today, is off limits?) the illusion of rebellion is harder to sustain.
     But in songs like "I Smell A Rat" and "Aluminum" the White Stripes still do manage to make you feel that you are in league with them against something--just what is anybody's guess. In "Aluminum" they lash out with a barrage of guitar that's downright obscene--it reminds you that this is what guitars were made to do. And the fact that The White Stripes are two people named Meg White and Jack White, and that in some reviews they are brother and sister and in some reviews ex-husband and ex-wife is kind of funny in an accidental way. The same menacing ambiguity is sustained in songs like "The Union Forever," where you get lyrics like this:

          Well I'm sorry but I'm not
          interested in gold mines
          oil wells, shipping, or real estate.
          What would I liked to have been?
          Everything you hate.

     If it mattered what the lyrics were about I'd say they're flung around like snippets of bitter, intimate letters to lovers and parents and teachers. But a great song can render even its best lyrics irrelevant, and a great band shows you how the last thing in the world that should matter is what the song is about. What really matters is the attitude of the voice against the snarl of music--the precise lyrics are about as interesting as a two-year-old fumbling through the sentence "I want more."
     Sometimes music critics will write a whole piece just to justify that one phrase or sentence that they know will stick in your mind like a pin. Apply this theory to White Blood Cells and instead of one sentence you get one song, the appropriately lyric-less "Aluminum," which comes at you like an elephant injected with a concoction of the rabies virus and morphine. It wants to slow down and speed up at the same time, and it takes its frustration out on you, making you feel guilty for wondering if there's any irony intended in the Black-Sabbath-by-way-of-Leadbelly sound.
     If the White Blood Cells was a movie it would be Harmony Korine's Gummo, an example of what director Korine calls "mistakist" cinema--a kid with rabbit ears pissing off an overpass onto the traffic bellow--you get the idea. But there's nothing as crude or calculating as that on this cd, which, like Detroit itself, depends on never quite reaching success for its success. An endless circuit of failed Renaissances. It's a perverse kind of achievement, to be sure, the great distress call of our time. The White Stripes make you forget about all that for a while--and that's got to count for something.

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