I can’t blame anyone who regards The White Stripes’ snappy look and garage rock variations on dirty blues with suspicion. It’s not like coordinated clothes and Muddy Waters cops are tough to pull off, and it’s not like Jack and Meg White are the first guitar-and-drums duo to make a virtue of stripped-down necessity. Nevertheless, the Stripes are legitimate rock stars, thanks mainly to Jack White’s offbeat sense of humor and his left-field pop sensibility. The man can write a hook, and he knows how to marry them to sweetly odd lyrics about kids on playgrounds, pollution and the correspondences between Citizen Kane and a failing relationship.

Elephant (V2), the Stripes’ fourth LP, is in many ways a holding pattern from their 2001 breakthrough White Blood Cells, which still makes it one of the best rock albums of 2003. Elephant is just as spirited and invigorating as White Blood Cells, with none of the tightness or overthinking that often accompany an anticipated follow-up. If it suffers by comparison, it’s only because the band have lost a little novelty.

The duo try to remedy that by offering a rare bass line on the opening track, “Seven Nation Army,” which also establishes Elephant’s swagger motif. Jack White begins by whining “I’m going to fight ’em off—a seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” The Stripes crank up for real on the second track, “Black Math,” which rides a driving two-chord riff and White’s trembling vocal screech straight into a sludgy bridge and back out again. Later, the twosome return to some of the gentle folk and country of their fine second album De Stijl, and they also whip up more of the white noise storms that they’ve created since their eponymous debut. Some of it falls flat, but most works, even if the connection to “authentic” roots music is tenuous.

Traditionalists may prefer the spooky mini-epics of blues boys of the moment The Black Keys, whose upcoming Thickfreakness provides an occasionally thrilling take on downbeat Zeppelin-style heaviness. The White Stripes, by contrast, seem interested in the blues and its variants mainly for their inherent simplicity, which matches the sentiments of giddy goofs like “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine.” In Elephant’s centerpiece, the slow-stomp “Ball and Biscuit,” Jack White lays down a line of bullshit about being “the seventh son.” It would be easy to take umbrage at a runt like White pretending to be wicked, but it’s just as easy to relax and remember that rock is often about taking what’s real and turning it into play.

—Noel Murray

Unlike their contemporaries, Supergrass never saw The Smiths as the Alpha and Omega of guitar music, drawing inspiration instead from classic ’60s American pop, ’70s British space oddities and good old garage rock. Not surprisingly then, “Za,” the first track on their new record, Life on Other Planets (Island), conveys the feeling of hearing something old for the first time. Similarly, “Seen the Light” is drenched in “ooh-la-la” harmonies, hand claps and phased guitars, but never descends into novelty or nostalgia. “The Evening of the Day” bounces along with a dark piano melody and sweet vocal, while the refrain channels the spirit of Ray Davies. “Brecon Beacons” slips into its syncopated guitar line as easily as Madness ever did; Gaz Coombes’ voice only sounds bigger as you realize how versatile it is. The band’s first two records shone so brightly that they eclipsed the two that followed them, but as Life on Other Planets proves, Supergrass make intensely good music each time out.

—Todd Anderson


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