There is something comforting in the fact that Jack and Meg White recorded their fourth set, “Elephant” (due April 1 via Third Man/V2), in 10 short days at London’s lo-fi Toe Rag Studios. While other major bands scramble to find the most expensive and famous producers to spend months tweaking their vision into something palatable, it is interesting that the Stripes believe that less time works in their favor.
“If you can’t do it in a couple of takes,” guitarist Jack White says, “then it’s not a true thing; it’s not honest.”
Certainly, rushed recording stints are expected of nascent bands bereft of big budgets and label backing, yet Detroit’s fiery and fabulously attired duo isn’t exactly in such a penniless or anonymous position. Last year was a key period for the White Stripes in terms of mainstream visibility. In 12 months, the band scored everything from three MTV Video Music Awards, two summer dates with the Rolling Stones, and a sold-out gig at the venerable Radio City Music Hall with the Strokes, to selling 631,000 copies of “White Blood Cells” in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The outside and internal expectations placed on subsequent recordings could have caused the band to tense up and write a diluted and lackluster record. Yet in the midst of the whirlwind, the band’s aim was as simple and sharp as ever: to make a raw and ragged rock album the way they always had.
“We were completely unaffected,” Jack White says. “We feel like we recorded the way we always had, which was great. Five of the songs were written there in the studio. A lot of it was just trying to see what we could come up with under this circumstance.”
The end result is the mighty and uncompromising “Elephant.” Gloriously muddy around the edges and incisively executed, the Stripes’ fourth disc will reassure longtime fans who may have worried that all the pomp and circumstance had forced the band to go soft or blindly believe in its own greatness.
Given the sheer quality and confident swagger inherent in this dense batch of songs, “Elephant” will also likely win over first-time listeners. The opening “Seven Nation Army” (also the set’s first single) begins with a thick guitar line played through an octave pedal, while Meg White’s minimalist beats build up a charging, crashing tempo. If there was ever a doubt that Jack White’s voice was equal parts Paul McCartney and Robert Plant, his performance on “Seven Nation Army” runs from wren-like cooing to caged hell-child wails, taking no prisoners in the process. When he howls, “All the words are gonna bleed from me/and I will think no more,” it’s his official call to fans to get up and dance along.
Following on the song’s dirty footsteps is the blistering, barn-burning “Black Math,” which features perhaps the most uncompromising marriage of thrashing guitar and drums set to tape since the Stooges’ “Fun House.”
Because “Elephant” starts with such visceral strength and impossibly attractive force, it is easy to fear the rest of the album would come up short in offering the same dramatic impact. Such is not the case. Following tracks like the tranquil, percussion-free “Cold Cold Night,” we find Meg White approaching the microphone unaccompanied for the first time with cool resolve — serenading eager listeners with her delicate and sweet styling while a gentle organ pulses in the background.
“It was happening right then,” Meg White says about recording her vocals for the song. “Jack wrote that song for me, and I’ve been doing more vocals live, so I gained some more confidence.”
Recently announced, the White Stripes have added eight U.S. dates in April, which will follow a brief stint in the U.K. The group will play two shows in its Detroit home before playing California’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, as well as in Boston and New York. This spring will also see the act play for one week as the house band on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The dates are still to be confirmed.
Excerpted from the March 29, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.
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