Short Cuts 

The White Stripes' Elephant art.

Elephant

The White Stripes

(V2)

White Blood Cells, the quaint, charming little masterpiece that broke this cult band big, was something of an unintentional concept album about the compatibility of classic rock and sexual decency, milking the sonics of Led Zeppelin and early Rolling Stones but filtering this sound through a very post-punk ethic: male blues-rock minus macho posturing. Jack White delivered a string of spontaneous-sounding mash notes and evenhanded romantic ruminations while his ex-wife Meg, presumably the subject more often than not, watched his back by keeping the beat.

This conceptual coup of a formula is mostly intact on the duo's follow-up, with Jack's grab-bag of gloriously cheap, inventive riffs still in plentiful supply and his tender heart still in the right place. The respectful affinity and palpable empathy for the opposite sex that makes Jack White such a garage-rock anomaly past or present is manifest in the friendly advice of "Little Acorns" ("Take all your problems/And rip 'em apart") and the anti-"Under My Thumb" of "You've Got Her in Your Pocket." His jarring sincerity comes through in "I Want To Be the Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart," a song only he could write, and the rocker "Hypnotize," where Jack becomes perhaps the only grown-up rock-and-roller since Lennon/McCartney to sing the line "I want to hold your hand" without it sounding like a euphemism for something more complicated, and I'm not so sure that Lennon/McCartney even count.

But, though the song remains the same, it isn't quite as sharp this go-around. On "Little Room," from White Blood Cells, Jack and Meg deftly outlined the challenges of growth, for a relationship or a band, in 52 words and 49 seconds. On Elephant they struggle slightly with the bigger room --the songwriting doesn't have the same conceptual clarity or sense of purpose as on White Blood Cells, and the music, while still glorious, doesn't have quite the same infectious, homemade feel.

But what it lacks in focus, Elephant makes up for in a variety and musical strength that may well set the band up for the long haul. "Seven Nation Army" and "Hardest Button to Button" offer what seem to be oblique comments on the band's newfound status, while "Ball and Biscuit" is the kind of noisy blues jam that Jon Spencer made a hipster staple. And, with a towering reading of the Burt Bacharach song "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," the White Stripes remind us (or, for those who only discovered the band with White Blood Cells and never backtracked, inform) that this is the best cover band of the era, having previously reimagined Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, and Son House on previous releases.

What's particularly amazing --especially since this band's videos are the most compellingly humane thing to hit MTV in ages -- is that there seem to be so many doubters, on both sides of the cultural divide, who think the band's popularity is merely the result of some kind of garage-rock hype machine. On the contrary, Elephant confirms the suspicion that Jack White is a rock genius every bit as singular as Kurt Cobain or PJ Harvey.

-- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Neon Golden

The Notwist

(Domino)

The sound on the Notwist's Neon Golden, a delicate acoustic/electronic blend, appears to have been achieved by process of elimination. Formed 14 years ago in Munich, these hirsute Hessians have led a Shermanesque march through such musical territories as punk, metal, dub, jazz, dance-pop, and guitar-god onanism (of a strain particularly derivative of Dinosaur Jr.). Though they didn't learn that Bavarians should never, never, ever sport dreadlocks (I'm blaming the dub phase), the Notwist should be given credit for ultimately crafting an album that assembles the best elements of their past, spent genres.

Their sixth full-length, Neon Golden is sure to increase their fan base. The record even made several critics' "best of" lists as an import last year. (The domestic release includes three nonessential bonus instrumentals.) While "Record of the Year" claims are premature, Neon Golden may well be one of the prettiest records I'll hear all year. A high tolerance for blips and bleeps as accouterments of more traditional song structures is necessary. Thankfully, the electronica flourishes don't seem extraneous and are integrated subtly throughout. The front-porch banjo picking and guitar strumming by vocalist Markus Acher are accented by the squiggles, samples, and beats supplied by Martin Gretschmann (who also records solo under the Console moniker).

In the end, Acher's voice is both the strongest component of the current Notwist sound and its most limiting factor. Not without its breathy charms, his range is limited and he seems intent on not getting all histrionic à la Thom Yorke. The restraint restricts many of the songs to being just pretty when they could be so much more evocative and challenging. Perhaps it is something that the ever-evolving Notwist will address on their next album -- which at this rate will probably be an a capella polka raga rock opera. n

-- David Dunlap Jr.

Grade: B+

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