Satan Is Real

Meg and Jack White are not.

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 15, 2005

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White Stripes
Get Behind Me Satan

Note: The following review contains no bass. Do not attempt to adjust your system.


They say, well, they say a lot of things about the White Stripes these days. And it's not just the rock-nerd herd; even the chattering class is talking about them: Newsweek, The New Yorker, Terry Gross, not to mention the multitudes swooning in the equatorial heat of South American Enormodomes.

Somehow the fake-brother-and-sister/ex-husband-and-wife duo of John Anthony Gillis and Megan Martha White, aka Jack and Meg White, has managed to transmute gimmick into mystique, to create a shimmering garage mirage out of little more than trashcan drums, greasy geetar and a natty tricolor fashion palette, and sell it to 4 million people.

Having proven time and again that less is more, the White Stripes remain adamantly reductionist about everything, from their music to the truth about their lives. They are masters of illusion via subtraction. And the less they give us, the more we want.

Why no bass? Are you guys married? Brother and sister? What happened with Bridget Jones? Tell me again why there's no bass.

They just shrug.

The prevailing sentiment in the echo chamber of the rock blogosphere is that the just-out Get Behind Me Satan is undercooked. That the songs, and ultimately the listener, are underserved by the restrictions the Whites place on themselves-the lack of bass, the chick who can't really drum, the guitar player who now writes on a marimba, the songs made up on the fly and recorded in less than three weeks.

To them I say: Go outside once in a while, maybe kiss a girl.

This may not be the White Stripes album people wanted. After all, Jack's great talent is sounding like Page and Plant-something no one person has ever pulled off-and with rare exceptions on Satan he opts not to get the Led out.

Not that Satan doesn't have its hellfire moments of wall-pounding rock 'n' roll. There's the White Zombie garage-stomp of "Blue Orchid," the groin thunder of "Instinct Blues" and the epic shriek-and-shred of "Red Rain."

But for much of the album Jack puts down the guitar-an instrument he wields like a Jedi-or at least turns down the "gnarly" knob, relying mostly on the warm, clustered chords of a Steinway piano, the occasional marimba, an alarm clock and every now and then what sounds like something falling over.

Jack was quoted recently as saying that most bands wind up liking their demos better than their finished albums (which is almost universally true, by the way), and he didn't want to have that regret. In the end, what is an album but a demo with polish and veneer and maybe a few tassels?

A trained upholsterer, Jack knows how to restore old classics: cat-scratched couches, Robert Johnson, Physical Graffiti, Loretta Lynn. You have to defer to a craftsman in these matters, and he's decided the songs sound better tattered and frayed. After all, when you're pouring out your bitter little heart, shouldn't there be some stuffing on the floor and a couple rips in the back?

After Ren�e walked away and the dueling marriages that followed, who are we to complain when Jack turns out a messy breakup record? And with turnabout being fair play and all, you're welcome to listen to Satan like paparazzi-to hear it as strobe-flashed glimpses of the private moments of glamorous people.

On "The Nurse" (Nurse Betty, anyone?) Jack lies in his sickbed, unwittingly spoon-fed poison by a nameless angel of mercy as a warm island breeze blows in with the distant sound of marimba and shakers. Then the music heat-warps as the nurse twists the knife while chanting, "No I'm never going to let you down," and suddenly the drums sound like slamming doors or coffin lids. Mmm. Drama.

In fact, it's all good: the hipsway locomotion of "The Denial Twist" and "My Doorbell"; the down-from-the-mountain glories of "As Ugly as I Seem" and "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)"-the latter a weepy country paean to sister love. Even the obligatory Meg song is good in a Moe-Tucker-warns-her-daughters-not-to-mistake-their-father-for-a-lover way. And then just when you least expect it, Rita Hayworth shows up.

What's it all mean? Alas, with these two, ours is not to wonder why. Is it not enough that Get Behind Me Satan is another classic dose of soulful, raw-boned songsmithing?

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