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The White Stripes, the Kills & the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Who says rock is dead?
by Mark Anderson

ock is dead, they say. Course, they've been saying it since Buddy Holly died. That's nearly half a century.

The White Stripes: creating this year's biggest splash. ["meg and jack," by Mary Bergherr]

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 simple plan.

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.

The 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 sex.

"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 pith.

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.

The Kills' 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 be wild.

"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 pitch.

The 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 tell."

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.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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