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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 
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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
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+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
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White Stripes
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Elephant
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Last night on MTV, Madonna held some sort of listening party/hype session for her new album. In between dodging forehead-smackingly stupid questions from the giddy studio audience and sitting down for a heartfelt one-on-one with MTV's resident toothy creep John Norris, she played/lip-synced a few of her new songs. The single, "American Life" (that's her album's title), has a neat little electro buzz riff and spotless production, but half an hour after watching the show, to save my life I couldn't hum any of her new songs.

If you can't count on Madonna to shoehorn a melody into your frontal lobe, pop music is truly in trouble. The pop landscape is dominated by anonymous hacks like Faith Hill, B2K, Godsmack, etc., and there's nary a memorable tune among them. And that, for my money, is what makes the White Stripes special. It's not their blues-exhuming "authenticity," not their publicity-stunt gimmicks, not their up-from-indie success story, not their admittedly-great wardrobes. It has nothing to do with the fucking Strokes. The White Stripes are special because they managed to land an album full of instantly memorable songs into Billboard's top 10. This year, only 50 Cent has managed a comparable feat.

It's impossible to overlook cultural context when judging Elephant. It's also impossible to overlook White Blood Cells, Elephant's stellar predecessor and the album that brought Jack and Meg to the masses. White Blood Cells is practically a masterpiece; it's the album where the duo's fuzz-guitar ferocity, endearing shyness, and uncanny tunefulness all came together into a near-perfect package. It's a much better album than Elephant.

Elephant is still a good album, sometimes a great one. "Ball and Biscuit," for example, is a stomping, snorting seven-minute powerhouse. In a Spin interview, Jack White claims to have "wanted [the song] to be making fun of cockiness." That's a shame, because White does cocky almost as well as 50 Cent. Affecting a bitchy sneer, he whoops, "Right now you could care less about me/ But soon enough you will care by the time I'm done," before launching into a ferocious series of guitar solos. White's never allowed himself to play guitar solos before, but on Elephant he proves he can cold rip that shit. This is telling; White's litany of self-imposed restrictions (this album, for instance, was recorded entirely on antique equipment) may be more of a hindrance than a help.

Most of the band's bolder leaps pay off. The propulsive bass riff of "Seven Nation Army" shows that the band might benefit from the inclusion of an actual bass player. The psychedelic opera chorus on "There's No Home for You Here" makes a pretty good case for them to work with, I don't know, a gospel choir. On these tracks, the Whites deviate from the template laid down by the previous albums, and the departures work mightily. But not all of these leaps work. On "Well It's True That We Love One Another" Holly Golightly stops in for an obnoxious, goofy honky-tonk kindergarten sing-along. The song is a puppydog-eyed pander not unlike the maudlin Nate Dogg love song that nearly killed the momentum of 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Other songs, like "Black Math" and "In the Cold, Cold Night" simply seem thin and unfinished, making Elephant the Whites' most uneven album since their debut. We demand better from our rock stars, Jack.

On Elephant, the White Stripes deal with the pressures of newfound international stardom by completely ignoring them and making basically the same kind of record they always have. This is both admirable and irresponsible. A great number of us in indieland have charged the Whites with saving mainstream rock. The Billboard charts need a kick in the ass, an example that shows how much kids need exciting, powerful, frenetic, passionate music. Elephant isn't that example. It's just a good album, nothing more and nothing less. And from the White Stripes, at this particular moment in time, that just isn't good enough.


by Tom Breihan




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