The White Stripes’ 2001 release, White Blood Cells, is arguably one of the best minimalist rock albums of all time. Jack and Meg White, only two performers, made a lot of noise on that record, resulting in critical and mainstream success. Since then, the band has made a name for itself through its high-energy live shows, but failed to capture that same tenacity with their last album, Get Behind Me Satan. That, in addition to Jack Whites’ decision to start another band, the Raconteurs, seemed to indicate the demise of the White Stripes.
Fast-forward to 2007. The Stripes, after a year-and-a-half-long hiatus, shocked its fans by announcing new tour dates and yet another album, strangely titled Icky Thump. The end result is not only a terrific return-to-form for the White Stripes, but one of the better rock albums of the last few years.
While their last effort, Get Behind Me Satan, was bogged down by too much experimentation and production, Icky Thump shows the Stripes getting back to their roots – that is, loud and distorted electric guitars mixed with a pounding, steady drum line. The title track and album opener, “Icky Thump,” starts off on the right foot. Jack White’s guitar solos are so ridiculously distorted that they sound as if a keyboard were playing them. The song, much like the entire album, is more simplified than Get Behind Me Satan’s offerings, falling more in line with the White Stripes’ earlier minimalist work.
As the album progresses, the Stripes’ influences – most notably Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan – become apparent. For example, the driving riff of “Little Cream Soda,” one of the album’s best songs, sounds as if it were paying homage to “Immigrant Song.” Later tracks, like the terrific country-tinged “Effect & Cause,” show Jack’s voice faltering up and down in Dylan-esque proportions more so than usual. Although the influences are obvious, the Stripes still manage to maintain an overall unique sound.
Songs like “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” and “Bone Broke” prove to be some of the Stripes’ most bombastic and entertaining songs, but the album does have a few missteps. For example, “You Don’t Know What Love is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” sounds more like a Raconteurs B-Side than a White Stripes song. And “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn,” with its blaring bagpipes in the background, ends up being a bit too cheesy for even the White Stripes.
Despite a few flaws, Icky Thump showcases some of the White Stripes’ best songs. “Conquest,” a Patti Page classic, is by far one of the Stripes’ most entertaining covers, featuring not only a creepy vocal hum where Jack White harmonizes with himself, but piercing trumpets to boot. But “Rag and Bone,” one of the last songs of the album, truly steals the show. Jack and Meg pretend to be poor junk collectors, singing clever rhymes over a catchy, pounding guitar.
Without a doubt, the Stripes have won back countless fans with Icky Thump. By going back to their older, more simplified sound, the White Stripes have succeeded in producing a raw and energetic album worthy of their live shows, and marking it as one of the year’s best.