The White Stripes, Amadou & Mariam 2005 David Bennun
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The White Stripes/
Amadou & Mariam

[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]


All Other

LET'S GRAB OURSELVES a handy analogy and head on down to the retro rock farm. We can observe how, as the pen marked “goats” fills beyond capacity and new arrivals crowd the perimeter, the sheep enclosure extends its few inhabitants ample room to gambol. Space that The White Stripes, bless their woolly tails, are putting to fine use.
 Get Behind Me Satan is the duo's fifth album, and like almost everything they've done, it's brilliant. In an era where most rock bands seem to exhaust any discernible purpose within a couple of tracks, it's heartening to hear somebody keeping up such standards. But then, this would be a remarkable record whatever its context.
 It's The White Stripes' most sophisticated work to date. Which is saying something. Jack and Meg White have often been mislabelled as musical primitives, because their style is rough-edged and minimal, and Meg drums like a toddler attacking a saucepan with a claw-hammer. It reflects well on Jack's gifts as a producer that Meg's singular and underestimated technique is essential to their sound. A more obviously proficient percussionist would ruin everything. The contrast between the songs, constructed with genuine elegance, and the performances, delivered with utter vehemence, gives the music its force - and that contrast has seldom been stronger
 With Jack's guitar largely supplanted by other instruments (piano to the fore), and a collection of songs as good as any he's written, Get Behind Me Satan has something new to offer: texture. Or rather, variations in texture. Take The Nurse, reminiscent in both its theme and its bipolarity of Adam Sandler's before-and-after-the-breakup number in The Wedding Singer, except it does both bits at once. From one channel glides a meditative croon and the soft sound of a marimba, while the other shrieks hurt and retribution. It's the album, and the band, in microcosm.
 Blue Orchid, Doorbell and Denial Twist will satisfy anyone craving the vivid, raucous, tuneful jolts of Elephant and White Blood Cells. Little Ghost shows the band just as capable of tapping into the roots of bluegrass as of blues, and no more liable to produce anything obvious or smug as a result. Take, Take, Take provides a beautifully etched cameo of obsessive, self justifying celebrity worship. I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet) is a drinking man's piano ballad that the young Tom Waits would have been proud to call his own; although Jack White's high, cracked tenor can express a wired desperation that Waits's gravitas would never have permitted.
 As rare evidence that rock can simultaneously hark backward and surge forward, Get Behind Me Satan has real value right now. But that's nothing set against its value as a work of art. It's a wonderful record in any light, and that's what matters.
 There are times when a certain type of fashionability may serve to put you off something. Music from Mali, say. Daft, of course, as the output of an entire country shouldn't be rejected on the basis of its following. And more specifically, you might miss out on Amadou & Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako, a really enjoyable Afro-pop-soul album, sweet, brisk and captivating. It's plainly been made and marketed with thoughts of crossing over in Europe (sung largely in French, it's already a hit over the channel); and it deserves to succeed.

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