“Elephant” by the White Stripes (2003)

During the recent Grammy Awards show, I opted instead to watch Jefferson Starship and The Contemporary Youth Orchestra on HDNet Concerts.

Yes, I heard a few chuckles when I mentioned that in the office the next day. But I could sing along with the Starship songs. I’ll guarantee I had no clue whatsoever about anything that was going on at the Grammys.

I’m a dinosaur. What can I say?

I didn’t watch the Grammys in 2004, either, but I was very familiar with one of the winners, for Best Alternative Music Album.

“Elephant” was the White Stripes’ fourth album and major-label debut, and Jack White made the most of the opportunity to make him and sister Meg major rock stars.

I’d heard of Jack as a damned good guitar player but had no idea about his prowess until I heard it for myself. Carrying the musical load in a classic power trio, with bass and drums, is difficult enough. Doing so with the backing of a minimalist percussionist is one exceptional feat.

Oh, and I’m not the only dinosaur. To quote Chuck Klosterman in Spin magazine: “Elephant was recorded entirely on pre-1963 analog equipment, and it sounds like heavy metal for the Great Depression. … Like his idol Bob Dylan, Jack White starts everything on the page, letting the lyrics, and the ever-shifting persona they articulate, shape the music.”

So Jack reached back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll for his 21st-century masterpiece.

“Elephant” opens with a song that also won a Grammy, for Best Rock Song: “Seven Nation Army” If you watch Penn State football, you’ve heard the band play the aggressive main riff when the Nittany Lions are on a drive; in fact, it’s become an anthem of sorts around the world, at sporting events and beyond. Including Arab Spring.

The lyrics certainly convey a strong sense of defiance: “I’m going to Wichita, far from this opera for evermore/I’m gonna work the straw, make the sweat drip out of every pore/And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding/Right before the lord.”

Dylan might’ve been envious …

The other 13 songs on “Elephant” might not have such an international impact, but each is effective in its own way, as the Whites explore a variety of styles.

That includes the blues, which Jack blasts in a fury of bravado during “Ball and Biscuit.” (Yeah, that’s shown up in Captain Morgan commercials. Yuck.) He conjures the spirit of Muddy Waters and company by proclaiming himself “the seventh son,” then continues with pure macho swagger: “You read it in the newspaper, ask your girlfriends and see if they know/That my strength is tenfold girl/And I’ll let you see if you want to before you go.”

Muddy would’ve been proud …

Jack can express vulnerability, too, such as in “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and “The Hardest Button to Button.” And he has a sense of humor, as evidenced by “It’s True That We Love One Another,” which plays out as a conversation between Jack, Meg and British singer Holly Golightly:

“Jack I think your pulling my leg, and I think maybe I better ask Meg/Meg do you think Jack really loves me? You know, I don’t care because Jack really bugs me/Why don’t you ask him now? Well I would, but Meg, I really just don’t know how/Just say ‘Jack, do you adore me?’ Well I would Holly but love really bores me”

Meg, by the way, does her debut as lead vocalist with “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Her voice has been compared to that of the late Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico of Velvet Underground fame. Yet more connections to the ’60s!

Maybe I’ll try to pay more attention to the current state of music so that I can prep for the 2013 Grammys. But unless another “Elephant” comes along, the odds of me watching something like Jefferson Starship again are much better.


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