White Blood Cells
A CD by The White Stripes.
Sympathy for the Record Industry, Long Beach, CA.
download "i think i smell
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
sorry but I'm not
in gold mines
shipping, or real estate.
I liked to have been?
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
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.