Despite 2005 being a year of financial fear and loathing, I seem to have managed to acquire quite a few CDs. So I figure I might as well write about them. I may be able to use them as a deduction.
Today’s selections are two albums that just seem to go together: Gimme Fiction by Spoon and Get Behind Me, Satan by the White Stripes. They share, for one thing, a color scheme; Gimme Fiction’s cover could just as well be the cover of a White Stripes album, which by law may contain only red, black, and white. They also share a certain dryness of sound, which comes across as perversely retrograde in the digital era, and a reliance on piano on the low end. And while I can’t call either one a bona fide classic at this point, both hint at depths that may reveal themselves more fully in the future.
After years of being intrigued by the occasional Spoon song, I finally decided to take the plunge on their latest album. All the signs were right: great cover, great title, great song titles. Did I mention the great cover? This is one of those that makes you yearn for the age of vinyl, that brings you at least three dollars worth of pleasure before you even open it. But sooner or later the shrinkwrap comes off and the moment of truth arrives. Or the moment of fiction, as it were.
Gimme Fiction leads off powerfully with “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” an all-time great opening track: slow-burning, majestically taut, suggesting infinite potential. The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the promise, but then again it’s hard to see how it could have. There are numerous highlights, including “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentin,” “I Turn My Camera On,” and “The Delicate Place.” Even “My Mathematical Mind,” which was never a favorite, sounded damn good when I heard it at the cafe down the street today.
The problem is that all these songs put together tend toward the monochromatic; it’s all dark gray, all unresolved tension. And while there’s definitely something sexy about so much tension, it translates to foreplay with no payoff. Which is OK, I guess, if that’s what you’re into. But for me personally, Gimme Fiction is likely to be more valuable as mix fodder than as an entity unto itself.
Still, I have to admit, if I ever wrote something as great as “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” it should be a cause for very great — possibly terminal — celebration. So I don’t expect the boys in the band to lose any sleep over what I have to say.
The White Stripes
Get Behind Me, Satan
Jack and Meg’s latest isn’t as viscerally satisfying as Elephant; there’s nothing here on par with the primal stomp of “Ball and Biscuit,” for instance. But give the White kids credit: They’re not afraid to risk alienating their audience by trying something new instead of just making the same album over and over again. Satan finds the White Stripes exploring some odd corners of their own musical universe, and if I can’t always wholeheartedly get behind it, at least it’s never boring.
As if to ease the listener into this new world, Satan opens with “Blue Orchid,” a relatively straightforward rocker — albeit one with an undercurrent of unsettling drum rolls and guitars distorted to just this side of the pain threshold. From there it just keeps taking left turns, keeping you constantly disoriented. Many of the songs have a recognizable twang or swing, but it’s always a little off; the phrasing or the rhythm are warped somehow, or unexpected sounds suddenly pop up in the mix.
Some of the strangeness may come from the instrumentation, which de-emphasizes electric guitars in favor of marimba, sustain-heavy piano, and the occasional acoustic guitar. This opens up a lot of space in the sound, giving the shadows a place to creep in. When they bring the noise again in “Instinct Blues” or “Red Rain,” it comes as a shock to the system, and one is tempted to flee.
Or it could be the lyrics, which center around loneliness, ghosts, color imagery, and Rita Hayworth. I’m not quite sure what Jack White is trying to get at here, but the vibe is that of the itinerant rural preacher, or the sinister carny; something to do with moonshine whiskey and funhouse mirrors. It’s Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum, or the midget from Twin Peaks. Yeah, that’s the ticket: If David Lynch was a rock band in 2005, he would be the White Stripes. The result isn’t always pretty, but you can’t look away.