ON THE RECORD | What's hot in albums, tapes and discs

White Stripes
(V2 Records) ssss
We don't get a lot of these moments anymore in rock 'n' roll, so revel in this while you can.
Listening to the White Stripes' new album is about confronting a breakthrough moment, experiencing something you know is important -- even if you can't quite pin it down on first hearing. Only time will tell where the Detroit duo's adventurous fifth album ultimately sits in the broader rock canon. But here in 2005, "Get Behind Me Satan" certainly feels like one of those albums, the kind of work that nudges rock's sound and culture in a new direction. It just might be the most significant paradigm-bender since Beck's "Odelay" nearly a decade ago.
The White Stripes have broken ground before, and we've come to expect surprises, but this is something else altogether. By turning expectations upside down, breaking rules as they craft new standards, Jack and Meg White have wriggled off the hook of anyone content to keep the band trapped in the fast-drying waters of retro garage rock.
From its spare but muscular opener, "Blue Orchid," the record is flush with opposing forces: complex and simple, reactionary and progressive, understated and turbulent, all at the same time. While you can hear the same band that scored unexpected success with 2001's "White Blood Cells," this is a far cry from that album's primordial, amped-up blues.
The most fundamental shift comes in the musical presentation. "Satan," awash in vivid tempo shifts and complex time signatures, is the most intricately percussive White Stripes effort yet. Jack White's blistering guitar lines are almost entirely replaced by purposeful piano chords. Meg White's elementary drumming is enhanced by a subtle, and refreshing, funky undertow. A host of rhythmic flourishes -- bongos, marimbas, tambourines -- are drizzled throughout, livening up the air once occupied by fuzzy feedback.
That's another way of saying that this is the most heavily produced White Stripes record yet. Recorded at Jack White's home studio in Detroit, where all 13 songs were written as they went, it's a kaleidoscope of an album -- and one that demands repeated listens to pick out all the colors. Themes of haunted love and betrayal lurk beneath Jack White's dependably opaque lyrics; there's genuine darkness to be found beneath the deceptively playful feel of such cuts as "Take, Take, Take." White's slippery but potent tenor makes way for a vulnerable falsetto delivery.
This is the White Stripes' "Led Zeppelin III," as the duo pulls back the tempo to explore new sonic spaces. Quiet, lush piano ballads such as "Little Ghost" and the closing "I'm Lonely" sit adjacent to cuts such as "My Doorbell" and "The Denial Twist," which ride the swankiest backbeats the band has put to tape. Midway through the album, "White Moon" offers pure musical drama, its trembling verses punctuated by crashing crescendos of sound.
Those hankering for Jack White's familiar crunching guitar work will find it in just a handful of spots, most prominently the loose rockers "Instinct Blues" and "Red Rain" -- perhaps the only two songs that could have fit unobtrusively on 2003's "Elephant." For a band that made its name largely on the back of White's edge-of-chaos riffing, it's the most daring conceivable move.
But it works. "Get Behind Me Satan" is a confident creative step by a duo that has shown it's not satisfied to sit still. There's a strong case behind the widely proffered notion that the group rescued rock by looking backward -- now there's an even stronger case that the White Stripes are the band we need to pull the genre forward.
Blue Highway
(Rounder) sss
On a scale measuring adherence to bluegrass music's traditions, Blue Highway falls about midway between the by-the-book sounds of Doyle Lawson and the sometimes-wayward stylings of Alison Krauss. The decade-old five-piece has an eerie way of making bluegrass feel contemporary, edgy even, without abandoning any of the laws laid down by its founding fathers. Much of the credit for that goes to members Tim Stafford and Shawn Lane, who craft songs that pay heed to lyrics and melodies as well as the sterling musicianship for which the music has always been known.
Although this outing opens with the blues-tinged "Marbletown" (from the pen of Mark Knopfler), closes with a revved-up train song and haunts the listener with the dark and hurried "Nothing But a Whippoorwill," it's the mellow moments that linger longest in the mind. Stafford's lovely waltz "Quarter Moon" and bittersweet "I Used to Love Parades" are standouts, as are Lane's aching "Tears Fell on Missouri" and bass player Wayne Taylor's "No Home to Go Home To," a timeless weeper about home, hearth and love that fails to endure.
(ATO) sss
The third in a coincidental series of live albums recorded at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, "Out West" is a generous double-disc set from the creative British rock quintet Gomez. Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams are the other two artists who recently released albums done live at the Fillmore, and Gomez' attempt easily stands up to those two.
Gomez has been touring the United States relentlessly for several years, building up a devoted fan base with an inventive, often psychedelic sound that incorporates lead vocals from Ian Ball, Ben Ottewell and Tom Gray, all of whom also play guitar. Ottewell's singing is the most distinctive -- a husky, sandpapery wail that works particularly well on extended versions of "Here Comes the Breeze" and "Revolutionary Kind." Ball's style is far less gruff, more like a choirboy gone to seed, and provides a nice contrast to Ottewell's on "Nothing is Wrong" and "Shot Shot." Gray only sings lead on a couple cuts, sounding a bit like Ringo Starr on "Love is Better Than a Warm Trombone" and "Blue Moon Rising."
To keep things interesting, the group tosses in a couple well-chosen cover tunes, including a raucous version of Tom Waits' "Going Out West," and a spooky reading of Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog," which segues neatly into the band's own "Free to Run."
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