Saturday, September 26, 2009

#96. 'I'm goin' to Wichita'

The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army"

I remember the moment that I realized what a cultural force The White Syripes were circa 2003. I was sitting in my French 12 class towards the end of the school year, right around the time of "Seven Nation Army"'s release, and one of the oddest things happened. We were writing a practice provincial exam or something of the sort when someone towards the back of the class started to hum it's bassline, and within a minute at least half the class had joined in, some just humming the bass line and others stomping out a reproduction of the drum beat on the floor. Our teacher had no earthly clue what was going on, but most of us kinda hated her anyway so it didn't matter that she was looking at us like we each possessed three heads, we kept it going for a few minutes until it just stopped and we went back to silence. I was a bit surreal in hindsight, but what was kind of remarkable was the breadth of people that took part in that momentary diversion. It was a mix of pretty much every branch of high school cliquery, all united for a few minutes by the most infectious bass line of the decade. The power of The Stripes was never more evident to me than in that moment.

There may be no better argument for the power of simplicity than The White Stripes. Strip away the hype, the mythos, the commercial saturation of Jack White in the years since the band's breakout and you're left with two people, one of whom isn't even all that adept at their instrument. That's not all that uncommon anymore, but one of the things that set the Stripes apart from other two person bands was how, in the early days at least, they never made the effort to sound like anything more than two people. Beginning with 2003' Elephant they may have made a move towards more rounded out sound, but their first three albums rarely went too far beyond the rudimentary drums-n-guitar base the band had at its disposal. The expansion their sound underwent on Elephant was both good and bad; it was good in that the songs could take on a bit more structure, layering Jack White's guitar to give the songs a proper expanse or allowing for the now present guitar solos to have an underlying rhythm riff, but the bad was that it also allowed for White's reach to exceed his grasp far more often than it would have otherwise. It's a deeply, deeply flawed album, but at the very least it kicks itself off in style.

Really, if the only thing this new, studio-abetted White Stripes had done that was remotely good was "Seven Nation Army" it would be enough to forgive a few Get Behind Me Satan's. It's not just a great song, it's a total force of nature. The infectiousness of the bass line aside, it could be the definitive Meg White drum performance. OK, so that's a backhanded compliment if there ever was one, but as unremarkable as her talents may be they're used to great effect here. Her skeletal drum pattern enhances the militaristic quality of the verses and when it gets a bit more involved during the choruses it's still well within her comfort level. Meanwhile, Jack White uses his expanded capabilities of arrangement to lay down an unprecedentedly great guitar solo over the slide guitar riff used to define the chorus. The key is that other than during the solo section, it never sounds like more than two people playing.The studio environment may rob it of the caustic tone of their previous outings, but the core simplicity of their duo format remains mostly intact here, avoiding the pitfalls of ambition that Elephant suffered from.

The simple nature also underpins the defiance of the lyrics i nan interesting way. When Jack White kicks the song off by promising 'I'm gonna fight 'em all/A seven nation army couldn't hold me back,' the bare bones underpinning of the bass line and Meg's unadorned kick drum pulse underlines the sort of 'me against the world' nature of the song. With such a desolate backing he sounds even more alone as he starts his battle, and until the song builds to the chorus it never betrays that lone fighter archetype. There's not really any sort of progression either, but that accentuates the sort of determination that the lyrics speak to. It may go through more involved passages but it always comes back to the desolation. The lonely bass line and pulsing drum beat are around every corner, a constant reminder that no matter the outcome of the battles it always boils down to the individual that got it started. There may be a political allegory at work there, but the basics of the metaphor the lyrics and arrangement weave together is enough subtext to give it that additional heft that any number of their better songs lack to some degree.

I keep coming back to that moment in French class every time I hear the song, not only for the surreal nature of it but for the sense of unity it brought to the group. But even then it started with one guy, and he illustrated the point of the song long before any of us were willing to hash it out.

Coming up tomorrow: Defiance can be gone about in a quiet manner too.

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