Saturday, June 11, 2005

Get Behind Me Satan

... pre-quoted from an Amazon review ...

The White Stripes are one of the most promising acts in recent history. I got into them shortly after their debut, which still ranks high among my favorite debut albums. De Stijl, for its many charms, seemed disjointed and uneven by comparison. White Blood Cells did everything right and remains my favorite by them by a hair. Elephant was a step in the wrong direction, a contrived and awkward album cursed by novelty tunes (good novelty tunes though they may be).

So it was with trepidation that I awaited the release of Get Behind Me Satan. Sure, "Blue Orchid" was a great refreshing song and great to hear the radio, but "Seven Nation Army" was and remains one of their best songs. There was nothing in "Blue Orchid" to suggest that the sound of the new album would diverge too much from Elephant. Good or bad, though, I figured I'd give it a try...

Thankfully, everything on Get Behind Me Satan works -- it's the most effective tracklist besides White Blood Cells, feels all of a piece, and is blessedly free of the novelties that made Elephant a bit of a freak show. Sure, the instruments being used are slightly, uh, different: piano, marimbas, bass. The songcraft of Mr. Gillis is as strong as ever, though, and the band manages to create some really dynamic sound structures.

"Blue Orchid" kicks things off with a bang, combining garage-rock vigor with Talking Heads-ish tension. Notably more produced than most Elephant tracks. The song suddenly stops and marimbas take over -- truly a bizarre shift, but an effective one, as a tale of trust and betrayal unfolds in "The Nurse." The emergence of the chorus's backing guitar and drums over the course of the song seems odd at first, but after two listens sounds natural. Down tempo gives way to up tempo with "My Doorbell," an incredibly catchy (and funky!) song reminiscent in concept of Neil Young's "Walk On." A very strong candidate for single release.

The second part of the album is equally strong. "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" is a simple but lyrically deft breakup/new love ballad equal to or better than Elephant's excellent "You've Got Her In Your Pocket." It gives way to the bluegrass dustup "Little Ghost," possibly a tribute to Rita Hayworth or the new Mrs. White -- a cute, fun ditty most reminiscent of WBC's "Hotel Yorba." Lyrics are pleasingly clever: "The first time that I met her, I did not expect a specter" really rolls off the tongue. Back to rocking for "The Denial Twist," a driven ode to jealousy and suspicion. "White Moon" is a rather surrealistic piano meditation on death, abandonment, and lovely Rita -- certainly the oddest track on here.

"Instinct Blues" is somewhat long and somewhat repetitive but introduces frustration, tension, and unhappiness in place of "Ball and Biscuit's" braggadocio and is much the better for it. It's a great song to crank up on the highway with the windows down. "Passive Manipulation" is the closest thing to a novelty, a thirty-second meditation by Meg on obedience to significant others and female independence. Maybe, uh, some other issues as well, but I'm not speculating there. Another highlight follows in the form of "Take Take Take," yet another Rita song. It describes interactions between the actress and the equivalent of a groupie, with the tense and heavily tracked vocals on the chorus simply repeating the title.

"As Ugly As I Seem" is one of the more surprising tracks on here; it sounds like an acoustic Smashing Pumpkins outtake more than anything else. I haven't fully gotten my head around "Red Rain" yet, but it's catchy and surprising. "I'm Lonely" ends the album on a wry but laid-back and familiar note, as the narrator contemplates family, romance, and suicide.

While the album may seem a "mishmash," as Amazon's review called it, it's in practice a very coherent and unified album. The Whites are in fine form and Jack's voice in particular is great. If you've liked their work in their past, particularly their first album, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. The best album of the year to date.

Highlights: Blue Orchid, The Nurse, My Doorbell, Take Take Take (and many of the rest :)