w/ Bratmobile, the Catheters
Sit & Spin, 441-9484, Sat Nov 2.
DE STIJL, THE NEW record by Detroit brother-and-sister garage punk duo the White Stripes is a disappointment--but only because it comes on the heels of last year's blazing self-titled White Stripes debut. That record was a shock to the system, a blast from a firehose of primal punk blues, comparable in its haunting singularity and delicious goth hysteria to the Cramps' classic first EP. On The White Stripes, Jack and Meg White were possessed by a fusion of electric blues and the binary frenzy of echoplexed two-chord punk, and they ruled.
The record's originals, like "Astro" and "I Fought Piranhas," are fresh and insistent, the drums like somebody pounding on a table to get a point across, while Jack White's self-immolating, sperm-shooting guitar is clearly audible at its every turn, with no other instruments around to clutter up the mix but for an occasional battered whorehouse piano. On "Broken Bricks," one of the record's finest moments comes when Meg drops the sticks to grab a schoolteacher's bell (supplying both rhythm and melody) and clangs the fucker for all it's worth.
The band pulls out some old covers, entirely recasting them to fit into their musical cosmos, some so hoary their authorship is simply credited to the first person in history to record them: "Stop Breaking Down," "St. James Infirmary." Most impressive is the complete appropriation of a Bob Dylan song, "One More Cup of Coffee." Like Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," this version burrows immovably into the very idea of the song itself. The best cut on the record, though, is a heady collision of Delta blues and modern myth, "The Big Three Killed My Baby," in which the Whites catalog the duplicity surrounding the development of the internal combustion engine, the millions killed by cars, and the havoc cars have wreaked on the social fabric, public space, and the ecosystem... and then bring it all back to the form before the drums crash in: "and I just found out that my baby is dead!"
The same braininess that is such an eruption onto the primal surfaces of the first record overloads De Stijl (also on the upstart Sympathy for the Record Industry label). The title, cover art, and overarching aesthetic come from the modernist Dutch school of artists and architects who embraced austerity and elemental colors in their non-figurative works, all in the name of "the purification of art." (Watch out: for some reason, music websites and Rolling Stone magazine are using cover art from The White Stripes to represent De Stijl. Don't buy the wrong one.) The Stripes even go so far as to include a paragraph on "The Style," aesthetic theory in the liner notes, which explains the reasons for "breaking things down into baser components." Uh, yeah. Unfortunately the change from their debut's approach--which seemed as basic and elemental as could be with its caveman drums and loud guitar--is to go acoustic in large part, add other instrumentation, and pull away the mask of attitude and sex which made the first record so engaging.
On the other hand, Jack White is as irresistible as Jonathan Rich- man when he croons on "You're Pretty Good Looking," and "Sister, Do You Know My Name?" which tries out a very approachable schoolboy wistfulness. Letting a little air into the act might, in the long run, be a smart move: recall how the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who sounded so good (admit it) for a couple of records, became just another band with a schtick, and one with tiresome minstrel-show overtones to boot.
"Apple Blossom" has some of the old style, but with unfortunately less torque, and that seems to be the general letdown. The Stripes' unique ability to put some English on rather deep verities is revealed further on "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise," which touches on the silence of real victims, then stops short, like a sketch for a great song. This band is wise to show versatility; however, one misses the equal division of labor heard earlier. Here Meg's drums are given a back seat, and the band's identity and sound suffer for it.
Though its songs are weaker than its predecessor's by a good deal, the Stripes' sophomore slump takes a brave step early, and in fact, strengthens their best, primary mode (which they slip back into for three of the last four songs: The last, a cover of Blind Willie McTell's "Your Southern Can is Mine," sounds like the Replacements--both by virtue of its throwaway casualness and slight misogyny), revealing that they had never really pretended to be anything so very different from their "true" selves in the first place. If they make another record as inspired as their debut, we stand to see the development of the first important young band to crack open the garage punk ghetto.