Wave of the future

“We take the stars from the blue union from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.”

— George Washington

“I was looking for a quote to put in our first single that would sum up the band, and I swear to God I opened an encyclopedia at the thrift store and I opened up to the page with that quote in it. I couldn’t believe it.”

— Jack White (guitar/vocals),The White Stripes

Recently, at a show, a friend came up to me and said, “Man, thank you so much for telling me about The White Stripes! I’ve been listening to them nonstop! I think that I’ve turned a dozen people on to them. They all love it!”

It’s something I’m getting used to hearing. Since their first, self-titled record was released on Sympathy for the Record Industry last year, Detroit’s great “white” hope, The White Stripes, has developed an enthusiastic cult in Asheville and across the country. Majestic, stompin’ and undeniably heavy, The White Stripes are the weirdest, wildest rock combo to enter my personal awareness in the past couple of years. Mark my words (though don’t mark ’em like a dog — I may have to eat ’em some day): The White Stripes are a classic band, with two superb albums to their credit. If anyone, anywhere, has the real rock thing right now, it’s The White Stripes. The White Stripes are brother Jack White and his percussionist sister, Meg. The waifish brunette with the cherubic face plays her drums with a steady, forceful thud — fills, rolls and other unnecessary flourishes of technical whoop-de-doo are sacrificed to the great gods Beat and Pound. Jack White looks like a kid himself — but I don’t really think any angelic adjectives apply here. Precocious — definitely; spoiled — perhaps; talented as hell — undeniably. His voice, howling with rage and glee, can sound understanding, lonely, angry, screechy, petulant, soulful and weird: one minute virtually operatic rockadrama, the next, burlesque. In fact, the “entire” band rides the waves of his guitar, which veers between sudden explosive bursts of bluesy rock riffs, slide fills and angular lead.

“Our sound came the first time we tried it,” claims Jack. “I played a riff, and Meg joined in on the toms. It felt good to try to do something simple but make it as powerful as possible.” All this drama serves the songs well — they’re lovely, harrowing tales and rants, broody ballads, and, most surprisingly, numbers that show a fascination with song structures from the 1940s and before, acknowledging not only blues touchstones like Son House and Blind Willie McTell, but also jazz and pop icons like Cole Porter and even Gershwin.

“I think that song structures of the ’20s and ’30s were so accessible to people. Melody was so important. Not that it isn’t in pop music today, but it was on a more basic, simple level back then. That kind of music has the appeal of a nursery rhyme,” continues Jack.

Nursery rhymes? That’s right. It’s the other half of The White Stripes’ methodology. Just when the listener is busy digesting whiny (albeit powerful and compelling) ennui, suddenly the mood shifts, and we hear — and I quote — “monkeys, jumping on the bed.” Childlike innocence — the band’s escape hatch from its post-urban blues — is inextricably linked to The White Stripes concept.

“Meg loves peppermints, and we were going to call ourselves The Peppermints. But since our last name was White, we decided to call it The White Stripes,” Jack reveals. “It revolved around this childish idea, the ideas kids have — because they are so much better than adult ideas, right? And we thought it would be a good stage aesthetic to dress in the colors of the peppermint, so that people would think like kids when they saw us, or at least remember who we were.”

And to think that when a naysayer once remarked, “I think they sound like twin 1-year-olds throwing a tantrum in the playpen while daddy’s reliving his past in the next room,” he was speaking in the pejorative! In truth, reaction to the first White Stripes record was either love it or hate it. It seemed capable of inducing manic allegiance and uncomprehending horror — sometimes equally — in the same listener. Using little more than the aforementioned musical elements and gigantic, reverb-laden production, The White Stripes is extreme — but, unlike most punkish duos determined to make a solid wall of noise, the magic of the record lies in the space around the guitar and drums. It brings to mind the ’50s recordings of John Lee Hooker, with his amplified guitar and foot stomp. Except this guitar is a lot louder, Jack’s voice is higher and angrier, and the riffs are stop-and-start punctuation rather than boogie.

The duo’s second album, De Stijl (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000), is receiving a less-mixed reaction. Here, the band’s spare sound is somewhat augmented by blusters of piano, harmonica, even violin, and the songs cover a more dynamic and emotional range — poppier, moodier; in short, much less monomaniacal. Full of so many little classics that it’s prompted Big Star comparisons, De Stijl apparently launched a bidding war in the independent-rock community for the privilege of releasing the group’s next album, with everyone from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label jockeying for the honor.

Opening the show will be Asheville’s own case of punk-rock arrested development, the Labiators. And while rumor has it they’ll be playing nothing but tunes from the Harry Chapin songbook, you can bet they’ll throw in some of their own classics — such as “To Part Her” and “Wait ‘Til It Wettens” — if only to please their fans.

Really, the only noticeable change in the Labiators will be a bit of Detroit-allegiance switch, from the Gories to the MC5 — that, and the spirit of American revolution has overtaken them: They’ll be flying those glorious colors (described so stirringly by the father of our country in the epigraph above) on their weighty amps.

Chad-iator (guitar, vocals, knee slides, chaos) had this to say about this exciting show: “I think you could maybe subtly point out that certain bands tour all the time, while other bands, like The White Stripes — who knows if they’ll ever come around again?” I’ll do my best to sneak it in, Chad. You heard the word, folks, right from another Asheville rock geek’s own flamin’ lips. And it’s true. By proverbial popular demand, The White Stripes are making a very rare Southern headline appearance. They’re only in the neighborhood at all because of a recently ended tour with Sleater-Kinney — so if you see only one rock show this Friday, make it The White Stripes. You’ll have made the right (now) decision.

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