When the White Stripes Broke Out With ‘White Blood Cells’
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The first two records by the White Stripes brought them acclaim for their stripped-down-to-the-bone mixture of garage rock and traditional blues. But it was their third album, White Blood Cells, that made them unlikely rock stars when it was released in July 2001.
It helped that the single “Fell in Love With a Girl” was punky, punchy and funny and arrived with a Michel Gondry-directed video that portrayed the duo as LEGO bricks. But more important to its success is how Jack and Meg White consciously avoided any outright blues or covers. Some of the tracks Jack picked for the album had been written years before the album’s release, while others had been composed right before the duo left for Memphis. White Blood Cells somehow skips from whimsy to whimsical rage to experimentation and never trips over its own shoelaces. Sometimes it delves into all three at once, like in “The Union Forever”, a song with a threatening guitar hook and lyrics that are direct lifts from Citizen Kane. “Hotel Yorba” was the lead single, and it sounds like something Jack and Meg pitched back and forth on a goof, which isn’t to take anything away from how catchy it is.
What keeps it all together is the band’s artistic integrity and the complexity/simplicity of their sound. As Jack told Spin, “It’s just me and Meg, guitar, drums and piano.” When you hear the influence, it might be blues, but it’s blues through the filter of rock: The Pete Townshend lick, the Nuggets-y distortion, the swamp-rock sensibility of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” Bob Dylan mixed with a child-like earnestness that would make Rivers Cuomo blush. When Jack says “Aluminum” is his attempt to recreate the noise of an actual aluminum factory, it’s hard to argue with the end result. As opposed to the previous two records, nothing blends, but everything fits. It landed on numerous Best Of lists, which isn’t a surprise. White Blood Cells is tailor-made for rock critics.
Once the album dropped, the White Stripes were touted as the latest saviors of rock n’ roll. They had the talent, but the crown never really fit. Jack White would hit the stratosphere with their next album, Elephant, but it’s in White Blood Cells that we see the start of his eccentric discursions. Where his rivals, the Black Keys, developed their sound into anthemic, stadium-packing crowd pleasers, Jack went the more esoteric route. Say what you will about his solo projects and his “blue period,” but you have to admit that the weirdness has always been there.
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