The White Stripes
Elephant 2LP (20th Anniversary reissue)
I’m not so proud that I cannot admit I didn’t like The White Stripes when the band first appeared on the great, big, popular radar with “Fell In Love With A Girl” in 2001. I didn’t like White Blood Cells at all, in fact; crammed in tight quarters with The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines and all the other “The” bands who were being called the next great white hope for rock at the time, The White Stripes came off as simplistic, derivative and kind of mawkish, to me; the palest in the list of names who had been called “the next big thing.” At the time, I was more into The Gossip and The Black Keys. Even so, the band soldiered on and collected more fans without my appreciation and, by the time they re-appeared in 2003, not only was I ready to start listening, the band had developed a little more and released something that I could truly wrap my brain around: Elephant. With their fourth full-length (and yes, this was when I discovered that White Blood Cells hadn’t been their debut album), had found a way to make their two-piece sound not seem so campy or formulaic to me and caused me to discover the wealth of talent which appeared on De Stijl as on the band’s self-titled debut album. In effect, Elephant was the album by The White Stripes which made a fan of me. Now, in 2023, I’m elated to confess that the twentieth anniversary 2LP reissue of Elephant sits proudly in the stacks of my record collection and, while I always liked some of the songs, the 2LP remastered vinyl reissue has caused me to become acquainted with the album from front to back and top to bottom. Of course, I didn’t review the album when it was new so I didn’t have to admit my appreciation for Elephant back when it was new (that would come in 2007, when the band released Icky Thump), but this album was not completely unknown to me.
I know. “Telling us this album was great was no secret to us, you music industry snob,” right? Well, come with me reader, as I eat crow.
As soon as needle catches groove on the A-side of the album, “Seven Nation Army” opens the running and a very nasal but bass-y riff will open listeners’ eyes wide. Somehow the simple change of including some low end seems to represent a complete dynamic shift in “Seven Nation Army”; Meg White’s simple drum stomp drives the song hard and simply and, while the guitar figure which powers the song’s chorus still sounds unsettlingly elastic, the assemblage of these parts amounts to a presentation quite unlike anything The White Stripes had done prior to that point. The result is absolutely invigorating in its own sense of innovation within the context of the band’s established sound and, while “Black Math” reverts right back to the sonic paradigm which won fans when the band did it with “Fell In Love With A Girl,” The White Stripes can’t un-ring the bell they’ve stricken; the energy levels will be high and the surprisingly pretty vocals that Jack White delivers at the top of “There’s No Home For You Here” feed the hearts and souls of those of those who have already begum this ride with the band. After that, listeners will lilt when the band cuts their volume will recoil overjoyed when the drums and guitar reassert their volume levels. Even now, twenty years after Elephant‘s original release, this vinyl reissue is capable of filling listeners up with the band’s energy.
And then the A-side runs out of steam after just three songs! Listeners will be absolutely stunned at the brevity of the A-side’s running, and they’ll discover that this practice is the norm on this reissue. “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” starts the B-side with more brilliant barn-burning energy, which contrasts Meg White’s vocal (and even lighter drumming) on “In The Cold Cold Night” before brushing up against some plastic soul in the tradition of David Bowie in “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and then striking on some uncharacteristic sweetness and acoustic gentility in “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” before the needle lifts too soon again from the vinyl. At that end of LP1, the result is a little troublesome; it sounds great and even the skeptical of critical will certainly be hooked, but the brevity of the sides is undeniably maddening.
Cuing up the second plate of this Elephant reissue reveals that it holds more of the same logistical issues for listeners. “Ball And Biscuit” opens the C-side of the reissue with an almost off-handed, bluesy and jammy energy right out of the new millennium and remains as powerful now as it was when Elephant was first released. Riding that same energy, “The Hardest Button To Button” hits listeners with a seething energy which remains meticulously contained, and then “Little Acorns” throws listeners a spectacular and spectacularly clunky salvo which feels entirely too brief – but listeners may feel compelled to scream when stylus lifts from vinyl AGAIN, IMMEDIATELY THEREAFTER.True, the movement is consistent, but it’s also infuriating in its’ manner.
On the final side of this vinyl reissue of Elephant, listeners who have followed along won’t be surprised when “Hypnotize” opens the side with some more uptempo and bluesy guitar, but “The Air Near My Fingers” feels rushed in its tempo. That sense of being rushed doesn’t feel remedied by “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” (which, at three minutes and eleven seconds, ends up feeling two-dimensional) and then just feels abandoned by the phoned-in duet between Jack White and Holly Golightly (“It’s True That We Love One Another”) which closes the album. That may sound over critical to some of the band’s fans and supporters, but it isn’t untrue; yes, the songs on the side are good, but they just blaze through too quickly and don’t connect with listeners correctly because the brevity of the play on each side is just too great.
After going front-to-back with this reissue of Elephant, listeners may find that they’re incapable of quantifying the experience they’ve just had – even if they are already well-familiar with the music. The only assumption to make is that Elephant should not have been double album; at three or four songs per side, the album just feels too lean. The problem is not the songs – the songs are fantastic. The problem (and it pains me to say this) is in the presentation. Elephant needs to shine as a single album, or a collection of 7” singles – not a double album. [Bill Adams]
The twentieth anniversary 2LP reissue of Elephant is out now. Buy it here, directly from The White Stripes’ official store.