Classic Albums: The White Stripes – White Blood Cells

Another sonic slice of heaven for you to revisit; or discover, if you live in a cave!

WBC

When Rolling Stone magazine modified their Top 500 Albums of All Time list in 2012, this bad boy came in at #497.  Unfortunately, my project is based on the original 2003 version that doesn’t include it- so as I was thoroughly enjoying listening to this record for the millionth time the other day, I figured, why not write about it anyway?  Yes, this is a long review – bear with me, or bail right now; you’ve been warned.

Anyone who follows modern rock music is well aware of Jack White – he is one of the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters (at least musically) of the past twenty years, with a catalogue of greatness that goes way, way beyond “Seven Nation Army” and “We’re Going to be Friends”.  By the time the formerly married Jack and Meg White got around to recording their third album, they had garnered considerable buzz but were by no means a household name.  That, friends, was about to change quickly.

With the badass stop-motion Lego video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTH71AAxXmM) and an  angsty, nervous sound, second single “Fell In Love With a Girl” took the rock world by storm in 2001.  Although it is actually one of the weaker tracks on this album, it opened the doors for the eventual superstardom they would achieve with their next record, Elephant.  Make no mistake: White Blood Cells is the pinnacle for Mr. Jack White III (born John Gillis) and is a classic that rises above even the lofty bar the man’s career has set.

After being immersed in a vintage bluesy-garage sound on the first two efforts (complete with numerous old-school blues and Bob Dylan covers), White Blood Cells is the first effort composed entirely of Jack White originals.  Written over the course of four years, but recorded in Memphis in under a week, this collection has a direct and simple approach to rock and roll.  From the opening notes of leadoff track “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, it’s clear that Jack has come into his own and is not screwing around.  That he can make his guitar sound angry and demented yet rhythmic is a gift he exploits here with great effect.  Also, this line is a highlight: “if you can hear a piano fall, you can hear me comin’ down the hall; if I could just hear your pretty voice I don’t think I’d need to see you at all”.

One thing I adore about this record is the organic and real feel it has throughout.  This is beyond “garage-rock”; this is two people playing a minimal brand of rock and roll so raw and visceral that it transcends time and space – at least for me.  To this day, if I am bummed out or in need of a pick-me-up, this record always delivers.  Now, Meg’s drumming is not going to remind one of John Bonham – she is banging out basic rhythms that keep frantic pace with Jack’s guitar shredding, in-your-face lyrics, and nasally wail beautifully.  Yes, eventually Jack felt the need to move on to something that allowed him to spread his wings, and who could blame him?  However, we will always have the six albums they released together, and each is worth your time if you are not already familiar with them.  White Blood Cells is the band’s peak, but it occurred to me the other day that I enjoy literally every single song on their six albums- no other band has a perfect “good jams %” in my book.

The second track (and lead single) “Hotel Yorba” is unique here with its back-porch stomp, and one of the best singalong choruses of all time: “1, 2, 3, 4 take the elevator at the Hotel Yorba I’ll be glad to see ya later, all they got inside is vacancy; 4, 5, 6, 7, grab your umbrella, grab hold of me cuz I’m your favorite fella, all they got inside is vacancy”. Interestingly, this song was recorded in room 206 of that very hotel (in Jack’s native Detroit) – the Stripes smuggled in their instruments after being denied the permission to record in the hotel.  Badass.

“I’m Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman” is a snarky tale that finds Jack wanting, Hell, trying to be a good guy to a woman – but starting to wonder what exactly is the point?  She doesn’t even seem to notice or care: “but if I held the door open for you, it wouldn’t make your day”.  By the song’s end, he has had it with her attitude, and finishes with this gem: “I never said I wouldn’t throw my jacket in the mud for you, but my father gave it to me so maybe I should carry you; and then you said ‘you almost dropped me’ so then I did, and I got mud on my shoe”.

That good ol’ White Stripes formula is in full force on “Expecting”, and the track concludes with Meg saying something that I can’t quite decipher – one of several instances of “extracurricular noise” on this album; the kind most artists edit out or dub over.  These moments only add to the feeling of raw intimacy the listener gets while on this journey.  Perhaps my favorite one minute recording of all-time, “Little Room” is up next (honorable mention to Pearl Jam’s “Lukin”).  This is all spoken word (some of it of the spastic “na-na-na” variety) and Meg’s constant drumbeat – stunningly simple, but a rare form of ugly/beautiful.  The message Jack invokes here is a powerful and meaningful one, and one that he would have to reconcile in his own career as a result of this album: “well, you’re in your little room, and you’re workin’ on something good, but if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room; and when you’re in your bigger room, you might not know what to do – you might have to think up how you got started, sittin’ in your little room”.  Genius.

“The Union Forever” is known to hardcore fans as their “Citizen Kane” song, because the lyrics borrow heavily from the film.  Jack is a big fan of the Orson Welles 1941 classic, and admits that the song is directly influenced by the movie.  Since there is no reference to the film in the album’s liner notes, there was chatter about Warner Brothers filing a lawsuit, but in the end the matter was resolved without that ugliness.  There are few moments finer then when Jacks snarls “I’m sorry but I’m not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate; what would I like to have been, everything you hate.”

Although the duo excels at the bang and strum carnage that most of this album provides, there are excellent softer moments, as well; see the next two songs: “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” and “We’re Going to Be Friends”.  On the former, Jack laments his stunted emotional growth and lack of maturity, ending with the fantastic line “everyone who’s in the know says, that’s exactly how it goes; and if there’s anything good about me, I’m the only one who knows.”  When the latter song starts with that simple yet gorgeous acoustic guitar arpeggio and Jack singing (actually crooning, which is a rarity) “fall is here, hear the yell; back to school, ring the bell…”, it takes me to a lovely place.

Its right back to Jack’s raw guitar assault and Meg banging like a chimpanzee on “Offend in Every Way”, which finds Jack ruing his social misfires and seemingly endless ability to offend.  Unlike many rock songs that glorify this, here Jack seems truly sad about it.  “I Think I Smell a Rat” is a riff on kids treating their parents like shit, and features yet another fantastic guitar melody.

Another unique facet of the production of this record is the copious guitar feedback, most obviously on the grunge-art of the quasi-instrumental “Aluminum”.  This is two minutes where nearly half of the music is feedback, and it’s either Heaven or garbage noise, depending on the listener.  I do recall fondly an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in which they were discussing the insane popularity of The White Stripes and then played a portion of this song as Jon was trying to figure out what all the buzz was about.  As with many things from that show, it was snarky and hilarious.

“I Can’t Wait” is a rollicking and slightly sinister missive to a wishy-washy woman, and is one of the highlights of the album.  The two songs that follow (“Now Mary” and the sincere vulnerability of “I Can Learn”) are both solid but pale in comparison to the beautiful and haunting piano ballad album that serves as the album’s closer, “This Protector”.  “You thought you heard a sound, there’s no one else around; looking at the door, it’s coming through the floor”.  Trust me, give it a listen.

Key Tracks: “Hotel Yorba”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, “Little Room”, “This Protector”