The White Stripes’third studio outing, White Blood Cells, is a complicated affair. Like many turn-of-the-century artworks, much of its content springs from a struggle with upheaval and transformation. In the time leading up to its release, the White Stripes were very much a band with one foot in the past and the other stepping toward the future. Lead singer and songwriter Jack White says he decided the duo would stagnate if it stayed strictly in its established blues/punk neighborhood. So, he and drummer Meg White threw out their twelve-bar playbook and came up with a messy cocktail of quirky garage-band rock, spaghetti western-style ballads, heavy-metal fuzz, whimsical folk, and low-fi experimentation. While the record lacks the musical cohesiveness of its predecessor (De Stijl) and doesn’t possess the wild-eyed idealism of the band’s self-titled debut, the White Stripes probably wouldn’t have been able to make the giant leap forward that remains Elephant if not for the risk taking on White Blood Cells.
When the recording sessions commenced at Doug Easley and Davis McCain’s studios in Memphis, the Whites were dealing with the expectations that came with being branded “the next big thing” in rock. Nothing captures the sessions’ mood better than the album’s 50-second homily “Little Room” on which Jack White rambles: “Well, you’re in your little room/And you’re working on something good/But if it’s really good/You’re gonna need a bigger room/And when you’re in the bigger room/You might not know what to do/You might have to think of how you started/Sitting in your little room.”
Such friction with the pressures of impending fame dominates White Blood Cells, all the way from its cover photo of pesky photographers surrounding the band to cuts like “I Think I Smell a Rat,” written as a response to petty backbiting. The record’s dark vibe is momentarily brightened with the innocently sweet acoustic ditty “We’re Going to be Friends” and infectious “Fell in Love with a Girl.” White Blood Cells captures a band forcing itself to grow, a process that can be ugly but seldom turns boring.
A close comparison of the 2010 Third Man Records reissue with a 2001 red-vinyl XL Records U.K. original yields a number of disappointments. Given Third Man Records’ commitment to analog, it surprised me when my review disc had two identical Side B labels. Things didn’t improve when I dropped the needle and discovered each side marred by nasty pops. A clearly visible divot (bubble) also appears on the beginning of side one.
Sonics proved a mixed bag. Playback volume demanded to be considerably boosted on the reissue, but even at higher levels, the overall presentation fell short of the original LP’s energy. While the reissue sounds more relaxed, it lacks the XL Records pressing’s convincing presentation of instrumental timbre and balanced frequencies. For example, Meg White’s drum sticks sound like they’re made of wood on the U.K. pressing but come across as metal or plastic on the reissue. Jack White’s plectrum strikes and midrange amplifier tone are also less palpably present on the Third Man Records edition. The latter’s somewhat rolled-off presentation reduces the graininess of more sibilant cuts like “Fell in Love with a Girl” at the price of decreased emotional engagement on other cuts (“The Union Forever”). Adding insult to injury, the high-gloss cover and slick liner-note sheet of the U.K. original claim a more vivid appearance than the duller cover finish and rough paper stock used for the insert in the reissue.
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