It didn't take a burgeoning local scene, or even a foreign invasion of pouty-lipped bands, to ignite 2001's garage-rock revolution. The raunch- and-reverb revival was largely spearheaded by an enigmatic duo from Detroit called the White Stripes and their breakthrough album "White Blood Cells." It also didn't seem to matter that the band's arty blues rock was overrated; a proliferation of fizzy pop and ham-fisted rap metal made the White Stripes sound like music's newest messiahs. They stood out, and that's all that mattered. Ooh, and they were "enigmatic"--a pasty, poker-faced duo who dressed only in red, white and black, did not appear in their debut video (they used LEGOs and animation instead) and left people guessing about whether they were husband and wife or brother and sister.
Jack and Meg White dress like ghoulish parodies of Tammy Wynette and George Jones on the cover of their follow-up album, "Elephant." The CD was made in two weeks, recorded entirely with equipment that predates the Stones ("no computers were used," they boast on the liner notes), and advance review copies were printed only on vinyl. Critics love these small acts of rebellion, and early reviewers have already decided that "Elephant" is the best rock album in a decade. It's not. But it's a far better album than "White Blood Cells," full of not just great sounds but great songs. "Elephant" is a scratchy collection of tense, maniacal rock, bittersweet country and buzzing power-punk. Jack White's wordplay is as playful and bizarre as ever ("I had opinions that didn't matter/I had a brain that felt like pancake batter"). His voice is campy and high-strung one minute, smoke-wrecked and gruff the next. And above all he seems to feel every song he sings, even when he's being tongue-in-cheek smarmy. His guitar work is just as impassioned--searing mad then back-porch lethargic then downright intimate. The production lets it all hang out. You can hear fingers slipping on strings, Meg's occasionally bum drumbeats and all that wonderfully fuzzy reverb that's been missing since rock cleaned up its act 20 years ago.
It's no small feat that the White Stripes delivered a smart, art rock album with soul, especially considering they once were pretentious enough to name a record after a Dutch abstract-art movement ("De Stijl." Ugh). So maybe it's time to drop the enigmatic charade--Meg is Jack's ex-wife, not his sister. And what do you know? "Elephant" still sounds great.