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White, Mayer show their true color: blues

June 09, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Jack White and John Mayer no longer share a hairstyle. Mayer recently abandoned the floppy mop that both pale-skinned, chinchilla-eyed guitar stars sported for years, letting celebrity stylist Sally Hershberger give him a towering inferno not unlike Lyle Lovett's. No longer is there a visible mark of the bond between these two seemingly disparate characters. Yet they're still separated at birth -- specifically, the birth of the blues.

Mayer, who makes his headlining debut stand at the venerable Hollywood Bowl today and Sunday, and White, who returns to the fore June 19 with the release of "Icky Thump," the jam-kicking sixth album from his garage blues duo, the White Stripes, aren't an obvious pair.

One is a technocrat and tradition-bearer who'd like nothing more than to have a standing lunch date with Eric Clapton. The other is a radical, burning through layers of pop fashion and convention to reach rock's primordial ooze. A Mayer fan might enjoy White's palate-cleansing attack now and then, but it's nearly impossible to imagine White Stripes loyalists tolerating Mayer's politesse.

And yet, like many mythic warring brothers -- archangels Michael and Lucifer, Cain and Abel, Bobby and J.R. Ewing -- these two are linked within a dichotomy. Both have fought for the survival of guitar-based, blues-rooted music after hip-hop, country and candy pop kicked rock to the curb.

Both have staked their reputations on hot guitar playing and sing with an androgynous expressiveness that women and men find sympathetic. White's songwriting is grandiose and Mayer's is modestly ruminative; Jack gets called a feminist while Mayer's mostly known as a seducer. But both are definitive male rockers, caught up in that old hero's journey toward self-definition in which womankind -- Jack's white moon, John's wonderland -- represents a treacherous frontier to be alternately revered and conquered.

Musically, lyrically, philosophically, Mayer and White are quoting from the same blues-rock bible. They diverge at the point where the music itself -- or really, our ideas about what that music should stand for -- splits into two streams.

Mayer has taken the path of urbanity, updating the blues sound to suit contemporary ears, as successful bluesmen from B.B. King to Robert Cray to Clapton have done. White turned toward primitivism, upholding the idea of blues as a conduit to the psyche's primal scenes -- the same nightmare playground Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones discovered in the music of Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.

You can hear this split in the way Mayer and White play their guitars. Both men stress the dialogue between their singing voices and their instruments, using elaborate licks and clever chord progressions to weave patterns between the two. Mayer, the crooner, tends to play with a supple, open tone, letting his notes ring forward in harmonic resonance. White, the yowler, punishes his instrument, squeezing the fret board and shaking his guitar's body to produce startling torrents of noise. Both sounds are carefully conceptualized and executed, but one sounds organic while the other foregrounds sleight of hand.

Is one sound truer to the blues? Not really. Since its inception, the music has made room for suave virtuosos and outrageous showmen. Many greats incorporated a bit of both roles. That's harder to do now that, for many listeners, the blues has become more an idea than a living thing; subtleties have a hard time surviving that transition. It's interesting, then, that Mayer and White have been inching just a bit closer to each other of late, the slowhand picking up some flash and the demon-slayer starting to relax.

Like every previous White Stripes record, "Icky Thump" is a rollicking trip into White's baroque imagination. After much keyboard noodling on 2005's "Get Behind Me Satan" and a constructive lesson in sharing with the Raconteurs, White has recommitted to his ax, and the payoff is huge. White has sometimes been so forceful in executing his mini-maximalist vision that he has strangled the creative spirit out of his sound, but on "Icky Thump" he sounds comfortable, even good-humored -- not demanding the music-geek community's inevitable four stars, but easily attaining them.

He's still a total fabulist. With drummer Meg White, his Sancho Panza, steadfastly following his cues, White stomps like a wired Quixote through new picaresque tableaux: the spaghetti-western Mexico of the title track and the kitschy 1950s cover, "Conquest"; the Scottish Highlands, on the bagpipe-strewn "Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn"; Bob Dylan's closet, on "300 m.p.h. Torrential Outpour Blues," a virtual rewrite of the bard's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

Best are the stompers "Little Cream Soda" and "Rag and Bone," which indulge in blues cliches with a wink and a shrug, as if White has finally realized that the primal scenes he keeps mining are made of nothing more than junk and cardboard. Putting down the drama, White sounds like a free man for once, though he's still a long way from natural.

Leave natural to Mayer. His Hollywood Bowl shows will likely bring out his showier side -- something he's tried to cultivate in the studio, but without much luck given his unwavering fondness for whispering prettily into listeners' ears. Recent live recordings show him executing those smooth moves with more of a strut, though, and now that Rolling Stone has declared him one of the "new guitar gods," he has something to prove.

Maybe that new hairdo will actually inspire him to go where he never went with the mop: into his own demon-slayer fantasy.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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