There are basically two types of White Stripes fans. Many hail Jack White as a guitar virtuoso and a revivalist, praising the pasty singer-songwriter for weaving traditional folk and country into the band’s raw garage sound. Others don’t know Delta blues from Mississippi bluegrass but think Jack’s banjo-picking was just the cutest thing in Cold Mountain. Longtime followers argue the merits of the Stripes’ angry self-titled 1999 release, while some of us only bought 2001’s White Blood Cells after discovering that ”Fell in Love With a Girl” wasn’t by the Strokes. Diehards defend Meg White’s crummy drumming. Casual fans figure it was nice of Jack to give his ”sister” a job. With seemingly little regard for either camp, they’ve made a record for both. DOWNLOAD THIS: I'm Slowly Turning Into You
On his latest turn at a game of genre Twister, Jack White landed with at least one hand squarely on heavy metal. Icky Thump is unapologetically aggro, ranging from the sludgy, gothic title track to the sinister Southern twang of ”Catch Hell Blues.” Those who like it rough will love the saccharine-free ”Little Cream Soda,” a crackling contrast of lows and screeching highs that would make Metallica flinch. But for listeners who lean toward Stripes Lite, the record is no assaulting, alienating attempt to revisit the band’s raaawkier roots. In fact, despite all the distortion and teeth-shivering riffs, Icky Thump rivals White Blood Cells in accessibility.
It’s a clever balancing act, really. Cuts like ”300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” and ”A Martyr for My Love for You” creep up with sweetly strummed melodies and baroque narratives that betray their cumbersome titles. Seconds later, when Jack White gets to ax-grinding, his succinct six-string outbursts are loud and scrappy but not indulgent. Elsewhere on Thump, the frontman’s carnival-barker charm defuses any hostility his guitar might suggest. The hilarious ”Rag and Bone” recasts Jack and Meg as Sanford and Son, scrounging for junk in ”halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones, looking for Technics turntables to gramophones.”
Whether howling or crooning, picking or ripping, Jack comes across as earnest and fully invested in every Icky moment. Only the matador-themed ”Conquest” is perhaps a stretch even for his outsize personality and seasoned chops. With its stereotypically charging bass and cheesy matching horns, the song is a one-note gag — minus the ”olé!” — that would only pass for authentic paso doble among tequila-soaked, indie-rock-loving bullfighters. Of course, the White Stripes have surely got a few of those fans as well. A