The White Stripes, the Kills & the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Who says rock is dead?
is dead, they say. Course, they've been saying it since Buddy
Holly died. That's nearly half a century.
White Stripes: creating this year's biggest splash. ["meg
and jack," by Mary
But ever since and every so often, up pop some fresh
young sprigs with inspired new ideas that knock the rust off the
rock and revamp our thinking on modern-day life, living and love.
This year is partly bound to be remembered for loud,
bluesy, hard-rocking combos with a strong touch of punk and next
to no bass guitar.
Recent releases by the White Stripes, the Kills
and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all succeed mightily with just such a
All three outfits parlay sexual tension, passion
and catharsis. Performances are raw, guitars sharp, rhythms deceptively
simple. Members are few. And none of it would matter if the songs
themselves didn't sing.
The White Stripes make the biggest splash with Elephant,
their fourth release. The Detroit duo's cool mystique, at least
in part, comes from a color scheme (red, white and black), a murky
past (Jack and Meg White: Brother and sister? Or ex-husband-and-wife?)
and an increasingly interesting future (Jack cast as the minstrel
husband of Renee Zellweger's Civil War character in Anthony Minghella's
upcoming epic, "Cold Mountain").
But the real story has been in watching the Stripes
turn into master tunesmiths. This latest batch deploys witty,
penetrating stories with melodies to spare.
The album is loaded.
White Stripes' Elephant: the Detroit duo's fourth release.
"Read it in the newspaper," Jack croons
in "Ball and Biscuit," a slinky seven-minute ode to
the name of a kind of vintage microphone and the virtues of off-the-charts
"Ask your girlfriends to see if they know.
My strength is tenfold, girl. I'll let you see it if you want
to, before you go ...
"Let's have a ball and a biscuit, sugar, and
take our sweet little time about it," he furthers, finally
getting around to the point. "Tell everybody in the place
to just get out. We'll get clean together and I'll find
me a soapbox where I can shout it. Yeah, I can think of one or
two things to say about it ...
"Ah, listen ..." he adds, voice tailing
off in afterthought as guitar takes aim and spits out a flinty
cascade that arcs toward petulant frenzy somewhere between the
four- and five-minute mark. And that's the penultimate verse.
Other standouts include "Girl, You Have No
Faith In Medicine" and "The Hardest Button To Button."
But "Little Acorns," "Hypnotize," "Black
Math" and "Seven Nation Army" stand out, too.
There are no duds.
Jack does most of the singing and his guitar seems
endlessly full of surprises. Meg bashes her drums like a deft
beginner and steps up to the microphone just often enough to qualify
as charming. The album, said to have been recorded in 10 days
at London's old-school Toe Rag Studios, sounds convincingly urgent
and off the cuff.
The Stripes even cover Bacharach/David, with a scruffy,
cockeyed reading of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself."
Jack's sardonic vocal finds proper balance between pathos and
The album ends on an acoustic note with "It's
True That We Love One Another," a sprightly tome that tweaks
the married-or-not question, seemingly just for fun.
Keep On Your Mean Side: angst and menace.
Meanwhile, the Kills and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are
fronted by ostensibly out-of-control women and we can only hope
that they, too, are just-for-funning because both bands
ratchet up the angst and menace to an almost ridiculous degree.
Neither of their albums approaches the easy greatness of Elephant
but, as first full-length outings, they're both surprisingly strong.
The Kills' Keep On Your Mean Side features another boy-girl
pairing, VV (Alison Mosshart) and Hotel (Jamie Hince). He's
British, she's from Florida and songwriting credits are shared.
VV handles the most outré of the singing and Hotel displays
a snaky, snarling guitar.
"Superstition" and "Cat Claw" kick off
the record with appropriate rebellion and verve. The brash and
boozy garage-band feel is hypnotic; the live act must certainly
"The kids like to fuck and fight in the basement,"
sing VV and Hotel in "Black Rooster," a duet that
oozes with come-ons and swagger. "Hey," VV sneers
near the end of the album in a rollicking blues with repeated
refrain, "fuck the people."
But the album holds up as much for strong music as fevered
Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Fever to Tell: when O means yes.
The same is true of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a New York trio that
bears a weapon of mass destruction in Karen O a freakish
live wire with an unearthly canon of screams, shrieks, bellows,
yelps and shouts.
Again, there's nothing but guitar (Nicolas Zinner) and drum
(Brian Chase) to deliver Karen's impassioned wail. Four of the
dozen songs on Fever to Tell are of the two-minute ilk.
And, again, the live show must be totally wild.
"Boy, you're just a stupid bitch and girl you're just
a no good dick," she snarls in "Black Tongue,"
a tough-talking tale with the musical balls to back it up.
"Tick," built around Karen's manic repetition of
that single-syllable word, is as catchy as it is insane.
"I've got a man who makes the devil pale," she muses
in "Man," a song that pushes the proceedings into
some pretty edgy neighborhoods. "I got a man who makes
me wanna kill ... yeah, we're all gonna burn in hell ... 'cause
we do what we gotta do real well and we've got the fever to
Yet Karen is also capable of sheer, unadulterated beauty. "Wait,"
she urges atop a sweetly aching melody in "Maps,"
before repeating the seductively incessant refrain: "They
don't love you like I love you ..."
Recently, a wise and been-around-the-block friend made note
that, as we get older, new music becomes harder and harder to
like. Something about old songs and their strong emotional ties
to things longingly remembered, finite amounts of space between
everyone's ears and such; it's not an easy theory to argue against.
But, then again, even favorite shoes eventually become worn,
and the right new pair can put a spring in anybody's step.
Last year was Interpol and the Vines, the year before came
the Strokes and these same White Stripes. Imagination is the
only limit for next year, and the next year, and the one after
that one, too.
At its finest, rock 'n' roll has always been about tugging
at the leash, barking at the moon and sounding good doing it.
Once those aspects get cooking, subtler lessons often bubble
to the fore.
What's to learn? Among other things, that maybe not everyone
needs passion. That the world can be an otherworldly place for
those who do. And that those who find and maintain it are the
ones who push themselves into the kinds of bold and shameless
communication that help each other out along the way.
That, and if rock's end is near, it will not go quietly.