John Anthony Gillis was involved in a couple of musical projects before 1997. He had an upholstery business that would share a name with his future record company, and he was a musician for a lot of local Detroit bands, most notably on drums for Goober & The Peas. After meeting and marrying Meg White, he took her name and became known as Jack White. It was in 1997 that the two of them formed The White Stripes, and they released their self-titled debut in 1999.
It’s remarkable how many pieces of The White Stripes were there from the very beginning. The red/black/white color coordination, the grimy blues guitar roar, the put-on that the couple were actually siblings, it was all there from the beginning. In spite of the fact that they were on a very small label at the time, such gimmickry implies that they had their eyes set on something more mythological. Certainly the production of their debut sounds like it’s recorded in a spacious venue, where Jack’s guitar can roar and wail with a cavernous echo, and where Meg’s primal drumming can fill the room like some kind of tribal cadence. They were shooting for big things even when they were still small potatoes.
Though these retrospectives will focus on Jack White, it’s important to understand how The White Stripes drew on the force of Meg’s drumming. Her actual merits as a drummer are rather debatable, though I’ve always considered her somewhat underrated. There can be no doubt that her work with The White Stripes serves as a kind of anchor, a grounding for Jack’s more flamboyant personality. The simple thumping beats provides a kind of pulse that works almost as punctuation. The overall effect is intensely percussive. Even when there are strong melodies, the music on The White Stripes often begins with repeated beats in quarter or eighth notes, dictated by Meg’s relentless bashing.
More than any other album by The White Stripes, the debut really leans on its power and noise more than any of their other releases. But after all these years, The White Stripes has revealed lots of small nuances and more details than it showed on its first play. Opener “Jimmy The Exploder” feels like a shot across the bow, its drums like cannon fire. “The Big Three Killed My Baby” indulges in some uniquely Detroit-style righteous anger, with an explosive guitar line that makes up for its somewhat tuneless nature with sheer ferocity. Among my favorite White Stripes songs is the second-half highlight, “Screwdriver.” Its snarling melody, wailing vocals, and crazed finale make it one of the best early songs the band wrote.
The blues influence is most strongly displayed in the quieter numbers. “Suzy Lee” and “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” are terrific songs, ones that display the versatility of The White Stripes’ approach to lo-fi blues. They are able to cover a lot of ground in a single album, all while painting in very few colors. Equally impressive are the covers. “Stop Breaking Down” is one moment on the album where the blues really get cranked to 11, and one can’t help but think that Robert Johnson would approve. And I have always loved the interpretation here of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee.”
Still, there are stretches where the songs just aren’t as strong as they would be on later albums. “Cannon” and “Astro” have always kind of run together for me, and like on other White Stripes albums, there’s a tendency to stack a lot of rockers and slows songs together, creating some passages that feel a little samey. In addition, after the show-stopping Dylan cover everything kind of feels like an anti-climax. The last four songs are all pretty solid, and it includes a great rendition of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” but it feels like the album has peaked by that time already.
Like many debut albums, The White Stripes sometimes gets by on potential as much as its own merits. But it’s still amazing how many of the standard elements from the band are already in full flower here. Not only that, but they are completely unadorned here. Never again would the band approach this kind of ferocity, and never again would they commit so thoroughly to their DIY aesthetic. It’s not nearly the best album the band did, (I’d rank it as the worst, simply in comparison to the brilliance that would come later.) but it remains the purest expression of their ideals.
Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
The White Stripes is, by a wide margin, my least listened-to White Stripes album. It’s simply not as strong in terms of songwriting as any of the band’s other albums, whatever its own merits are. But through the years, it has served as one of their more cathartic listens. When I’m really seeking something explosive, this is the easiest album to dig into. There are times when noise is necessary, and those are the times The White Stripes shines the most. Only after accepting it at that level was I able to really appreciate the other qualities of the album. It really is the purest expression of who The White Stripes are from the beginning, though they would create their best music while pushing against those conceptions.