Sunday, May 21, 2023

20 Notes on The White Stripes' Elephant for its 20th Birthday

The White Stripes released Elephant, their forth studio album, on April 1, 2003. Recorded over the course of two weeks mostly using analogue equipment in Toe Rag Studios, Elephant doesn't have the enduring legacy of a quick trip to the studio in between arduous tour dates in the U.K. and Europe around White Blood Cells. Instead, Elephant is The White Stripes' most celebrated album and includes the 21st century's biggest guitar rock song.

  1. Let's get "Seven Nation Army" out of the way. It is, after all, track one. The balls on this band to put the biggest rock and roll song of the 21st century as the prelude to the 13 Elephant tracks that follow it!
  2. Jack White often says in interviews "Seven Nation Army" was his go at writing a Bond theme, which he ended up doing later with Alicia Keys for Quantum of Solace with "Another Way to Die"
  3. While it isn't a Bond theme, "Seven Nation Army" can be heard in most sporting arenas globally so it is, in a way, more thematic than if it were a theme song. If it were the theme song to an existing James Bond movie, it would obviously be Die Another Day which is, as far as I remember, the only Bond movie where Bond squares off against a nation's actual army in any meaningful way.
  4. The album does boast a soundtrack song: "The Hardest Button to Button" gets a memorable joke and White Stripes cameo in The Simpsons:
  5. Elephant might have the all-time best side-a/side-c opening tracks for each LP: "Seven Nation Army" (speaks for itself) and friggin' "Ball & Biscuit"? No contest.
  6. Okay enough "Seven Nation Army," let's talk about covers. If you count b-sides, Elephant has two: the excellent Brendan Benson song "Good to Me," that had been percolating in White's live repertoire since the mid 90s in Detroit, and Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Their take on Bacharach's cut is the album's second single, bridging the bombastic tracks and the more mellow, polished songs of Elephant.
  7. Speaking of polish, man, if parts of White Blood Cells distanced The White Stripes from their garage rock roots, Elephant by a lesser band would have been totally dismissed as a sell-out album. Move Jack & Meg back a decade and the scene would have turned on them.
  8. Instead, Elephant (which, by the way, is not lacking rough edges - have you heard "Black Math"?) is an album by a band fully in its ascendency. To wit, it was the 2004 Grammy Awards' Alternative Album of the Year.
  9. I do not remember the first time I heard Elephant in its entirety, nor do I remember which songs from Elephant were on a formative mix cd from my uncle, but I do remember "Ball & Biscuit" was one of them, and that I didn't like it, favoring the more punchy White Stripes tunes featured ("Fell in Love With a Girl", for example).
  10. Now, "Ball & Biscuit" is probably a top three White Stripes song for me.
  11. This is best understood in the live setting, and while I never got to see The White Stripes, I have seen White play this song many times with his various solo backing bands (best performed on the Lazaretto tour IMO) but the semi-unofficial Elephant concert album Under Blackpool Lights best captures not only the power of the band's live prowess in this era, but also the uniquely Britishness of the record. 
  12. If pressed to expand on that, all I could say was how strange the Holly Golightly feature in "It's True That We Love One Another" is at the closing spot on the album.
  13. The Record Store Day 2013 edition of Elephant was the first White Stripes studio album variant I had, and I needed a roommate to go to Amoeba Haight-Ashbury to pick it up because I was in the Middle East when it came out.

  14. Since we're talking about me, I'll just briefly add that Mort Crim's long introduction to the bonkers "Little Acorns" (which, if not for that long intro, would be a top White Stripes track in league with "Seven Nation Army" or "Hardest Button") plays a semi-significant role in my dissertation.
  15. "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" is a transcendent slow jam. Never heard a venue so quiet, an outdoor venue no less, than when White pulled this out during the Boarding House Reach tour in summer 2018.
  16. "There's No Home For You Here" is the only White Stripes song I *almost* don't like. There's some nice guitar work, but the introduction is loud and annoying, and I'm not alone in that. It didn't chart. In an interview, Jack White said that the song was an experiment "to see how far we could go with an eight track recorder, and I think how far we went is too far."
  17. That's as close to a skip as Elephant gets though, and its nestled between two of the album's best songs ("Black Math" and "I Just Don't Know...")
  18. Actually that's a lie, "The Air is Near My Fingers" is also almost a skip, and the low point of the back half of the album, which hides another White Stripes secret weapon: "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine," a song which I remember hearing Jack White say somewhere was too mean.
  19. It is a nice plug for migraine medicine, which makes it prescient lyrically to me.
  20. Elephant is in a strange place because while it has some of the objectively best White Stripes songs ("Seven Nation Army", "Hardest Button...") and my favorite ("Ball & Biscuit", "Black Math") it is also, to my ear, the least album-y White Stripes album. On any given day I will tell you my favorite album of theirs is De Stijl or White Blood Cells but maybe White Stripes being the shot heard 'round the world is the top of the pops or no hold on Get Behind Me Satan was my first new White Stripes album as a fan its that. I will tell you, regardless of the day, that Icky Thump is my least favorite White Stripes album, but I somehow never mention Elephant at all. Their biggest album. Still, even twenty years later, still a little quiet to me.
It is, after all these years, such an excellent album from such an excellent period of the band's history. Live cuts from 2003 are impossibly good. Look no further than the 20th anniversary edition of the album, which features a colossal performance from the Chicago Aragon Ballroom (that was formerly a vinyl-exclusive release) to hear a band capture lighting in a bottle song after song. Or, check out the new Vault-exclusive mono mix of Elephant that makes these big songs even, somehow, bigger. or, just listen to these songs, loudly, and be sure to yell happy birthday over the reverb.

No comments:

Post a Comment