White Stripes' Icky Thump Takes the Hard-Rock High Road, With Questionable Detours

Jack and Meg reassert their dadaist manifesto with fresh articulations, but we could have done without the bagpipes.

Beware, gentle reader, the media onslaught declaring the White Stripes' sixth studio record to be a "return to form." It's true that the opening title track (and first single) is one formidable rock monster, sturdily built on the Detroit duo's muscular minimalism, but that starting shot is more of a calling card than a mission statement. Thanks in part to the high-tech advantages on tap at Nashville's Blackbird Studios, Jack and Meg have reasserted their dadaist manifesto with fresh articulations—most of which are boldly successful, and some of which are questionably contrived. For the latter, look no further than "Conquest," in which Jack mysteriously loses sight of his normally astute cover choices and runs ramshackle over the Corky Robbins song (originally popularized by Patti Page), sinking rather humorously under the weight of his own melodramatic vocals and Regulo Aldama's canned-sounding mariachi horns. Things bounce back nicely with the classic blue-collar lament of "Bone Broke," but veer off the rails again with an uneven detour to the British Isles. "Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly..." and "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)" may allow Jack to exercise an urge to pick up the bagpipes and chart out some old-world, mystical territories, but in this context it just serves as a cue to fast-forward toward the stronger tracks on the record's back end. "Little Cream Soda" may be one of the most brutishly beautiful punches they've thrown since De Stijl, and the delightful romp of "Rag and Bone" (featuring a sweet call-and-response dialogue between the Whites while they peruse what sounds like the world's most treasure-laden junkyard) comes close to rivaling "Fell in Love With a Girl" in terms of pure, primal charm. Really, with 13 tracks clocking in at near 60 minutes and this many obvious standouts, there's no excuse for not editing out the fat and leaving the listener with the meat of the matter.

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