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Pop Music Review

The White Stripes Stand Out in the Middle of a Crossroads

June 03, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The White Stripes' Jack White loves being mysterious about his personal history, even introducing his drummer Meg White as his big sister, though many Stripes fans believe she's really his ex-wife.

So White would probably be delighted if someone started spreading the word that he was with Robert Johnson at the mythical crossroads when the legendary blues singer made a pact with the devil to gain superhuman musical powers.

Those who saw the Stripes' spectacular weekend performances at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and the Glass House in Pomona might even think there's something to that scenario.

How else do you explain someone whose fearless independence and explosive artistry place him in a great rock tradition that stretches from Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor all the way back to Johnny Cash and the rest of the Sun Records stable?

There isn't a more thrilling new figure in American rock, and he's a big reason why rock seems to be turning a corner after a drab late '90s.

Just days after the Hives, the engaging punk-garage band from Sweden, reminded a Roxy crowd of the joy of simple fun in rock, the Stripes reminded fans Friday at the El Rey and Saturday at the Glass House of just about everything else that can make a band absorbing.

The Stripes' music is smart, liberating, witty, teasing and wonderfully sensual, and the two musicians sometimes show a Zeppelin-like explosiveness, complete with Robert Plant-like howl.

And there's certainly no absence of fun. During "The Union Forever," a song built around lines from "Citizen Kane," White donned a derby Saturday and duplicated a few cocky dance steps from the Orson Welles film.

White's music is rooted in the blues, and he could be a winning performer if he devoted Stripes concerts just to his urgent, impassioned treatments of old blues tunes, including Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down," which the Detroit duo included on its self-titled 1999 debut album on the independent label Sympathy for the Record Industry.

As a singer and a guitarist, White rarely moves in a straight line. He'll make sharp turns or abrupt stops and starts, each one punctuated by violent twists of his body. It's as if he's always on the lookout for a more powerful or convincing way of getting to the heart of the song's emotional core.

The Stripes are also effective dipping into country music, as on a remake of Loretta Lynn's "Rated X" (sung both nights by Meg White) and in Friday's version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."

In the latter, a woman pleads with the prettier Jolene to leave her man alone. Without changing the character's gender, White adds a darker, Roy Orbison-like sense of desperation and doubt vocally to Parton's lines: "Jolene, Jolene ... I'm begging of you, please don't take my man/Jolene, Jolene, please don't take him, just because you can."

But White's artistry rests in his own material, which ranges from the urgent blues-rock of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and "Fell in Love With a Girl" to the vital, rockabilly, Gram Parsons-inspired "Hotel Yorba" to the sweet, tuneful, innocent, Paul Westerberg-like "We're Going to Be Friends."

Because the attention is mostly on her partner, Meg White seems to be simply decoration early in the show, but she proves a remarkably appealing and versatile drummer whose steady, insistent hand serves as an anchor for Jack's sweeping emotional excursions.

After three indie albums, including last year's superb "White Blood Cells," the Stripes have been picked up by V2 Records and are at work on their major-label debut. At a time when rock 'n' roll itself seems at a crossroads, this band is at the right time and in the right place to make a major difference.

*

The White Stripes play tonight at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Sold out. (323) 936-4790.

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