Elephant and Guitar Romantic Turn 10

The bar scene at Ohio University, where I was finishing up my freshman year this time 10 years ago, is a heavy-handed metaphor. Along the main drag, Court Street, are a few dozen establishments wherein coeds in search of bed buddies show off the binge drinking skills they honed in the dorms. For lack of a better word, this is the “mainstream” of student nightlife. A series of east-west avenues intersect with Court, and it’s along these blocks — off the beaten path, sort of — that you’ll find the grizzled townie bar, the brewpub with the jam bands, the biker bar, the old-school college town record store, the locally sourced vegan-friendly co-op and the coffee shop with the social justice motif (“Caffeine with a conscience,” goes the slogan). Students who self-identify as “alternative” or “indie” or “punk” or “hippie” typically end up hanging out at these joints, so of course that’s also more or less where the music scene lives.

Because Athens is a rural college town of about 23,000 (the population doubles when the students are in town), there’s typically only room for one business in a given niche, sometimes zero. But the ecosystem does support one honest-to-god rock ’n’ roll bar, a dark, musty, two-story dive called The Union. All sorts of bands haul their equipment up that gargantuan staircase to play for an audience buzzing on insanely cheap beer on a stage with a wooden support beam front and center. The lifeblood of the place, though — the music that proliferates among the regulars and the students who stick around after they graduate — is raw, ragged, raunchy, retro rock ’n’ roll. The Union’s signature event is an annual three-night blitzkrieg called Blackoutfest usually headlined by rabid garage punks like the Dirtbombs, Lost Sounds, and Demolition Doll Rods. Those sorts of acts stop by all year round on their way through a circuit of similar venues across the country and around the globe, a network of dive bars, punk houses, and record shops that constitute the retro-fetishizing punk rock underground. In that world, 7-inches are the currency, elemental power is prized as music’s supreme virtue, leather jackets never go out of style, and mythic characters from Robert Johnson to Jerry Lee Lewis to Jay Reatard are venerated as saints. It’s an insular scene, but occasionally it launches an export into the world at large.

None of them soared higher than the White Stripes. As I was told innumerable times after arriving at OU, Jack and Meg played the Union during the formative era before 2001’s White Blood Cells made them headliners in the U.K.-sponsored, U.S.-approved “return of the rock” movement. But by the time Elephant stomped out of the gate on April Fools Day 2003, they were opening for the Rolling Stones and scoring five stars out of five in Rolling Stone, heirs apparent to the garage rock throne. Jack, a living parody of rockist virtues, became their de facto ambassador. In interviews, he rejected hip-hop, techno, and even (gasp!) Motown; in the studio and on stage, he mashed up blues and punk, the twin pillars of emotive, guitar-slinging so-called authenticity. The Stripes’ sound had been an underground trend for some time, dating at least to Sympathy For The Record Industry precursors the Gibson Bros. in the ’80s — they even had an amateurish female drummer! — and widely adored in the form of Gibson offshoot Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the ’90s. But those bands didn’t have the color scheme (an unwavering red, white, and black palette) or the colorful backstory (ex-spouses posing as brother and sister) that helped make Jack and Meg media darlings and instant rock royalty.

Elephant was to be their coronation, their “Welcome to the canon!” party. In keeping with that, the record read less like the breathless excitement of genius at work than a thesis on quote-unquote real rock history from a star pupil — recorded, of course, on ancient analog equipment. It’s telling that Elephant is the album that kicked off the Stripes’ Grammy streak. The first three Stripes records oozed with raw power, reclaiming the raucous, hedonistic Detroit proto-punk of MC5 and the Stooges and reframing it through the lens of Jack’s blues and country heroes. On Elephant, that feral sound is tamed ever so slightly, the way you’d expect from a major label debut. Compounding the nagging sense of underachievement was a handful of songs that appeared to be rewrites of White Blood Cells tracks: “There’s No Home For You Here” was “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” with a Freddie Mercury choir; “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” reeked of “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman”; “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” repurposed the McCartney-gone-twee sing-song of “We’re Going To Be Friends” to lesser effect.

That said, Elephant wasn’t all studious replication of this band’s history and rock history at large. It was no White Blood Cells — hell, it was no Icky Thump — but it was still very much a White Stripes album, which means it came littered with blasts of unmistakable White Stripes inspiration. “The Hardest Button To Button” is impossibly simple, but nobody else could have written it, and it continues to kick ass in Jack White live sets to this day. The Burt Bacharach tune “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” though it indulges those retro-maniacal tendencies, is another astonishing example of the mileage Jack got out of howling through classic covers. “Ball And Biscuit” is the kind of stretched-out, straight-ahead blues rocker that exemplifies everything glorious about classic rock when limited to a quantity of one and becomes everything tedious about the genre at a quantity of two or more; good thing there’s only one here. “Black Math” crushes, as does the satisfyingly weird “Little Acorns”; years removed from my last listen, I could have sworn the intro was a Spotify ad. And Meg’s two turns on the mic are frigid gold, both the minimal ballad “In The Cold, Cold Night” and her disgusted responses to Jack and Holly Golightly on wink-winking, borderline obnoxious closer “Well It’s True That We Love One Another.”

But when we talk about the legacy of Elephant, we’re really talking about the legacy of “Seven Nation Army.” Holy hell, what a riff! What an opening number! This song was everything the White Stripes strived to be — raw, rudimentary, explosive, infectious and couched in skewed instant-classic iconography. (“I’m going to Wichita!”) It was pretty much guaranteed to go down as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, but who saw it coming back for a second life as one of the greatest stadium chants of all time? Seemingly everywhere sports are played, the iconic seven-note riff pops up on the P.A., or in brass blasts from the marching band, or as a rousing chant from a gang of fans. In my own city alone, they play it before every kickoff at Ohio State football games, and the Columbus Crew supporters section cheers soccer players’ names to the tune. And why wouldn’t they? It’s timeless. The first time I heard it, I could have sworn White jacked it from some decades-old classic, but he didn’t. It’s just that good.


You know who else wrote riffs like that? The Exploding Hearts. The same day V2 unveiled Elephant in all its candy-cane-colored swagger, Dirtnap Records unleashed Guitar Romantic, a neon pink and yellow burst of power-pop perfection. Geographically, the Exploding Hearts’ Oregon home base was thousands of miles from the Detroit garage rock revival that birthed the White Stripes, but spiritually the bands were practically next-door neighbors. The Hearts’ reverence for the good old days shined through in their every gesture, from their pointed embrace of the Buzzcocks/Undertones/Only Ones school of pop-punk songwriting to their Fonz/Ramones ’50s-via-’70s throwback wardrobe to the self-destructive drunken antics they described in their Pitchfork interview, wherein they also ridiculed Justin Timberlake for wearing an MC5 shirt. (“What the fuck did he ever do? Put on headphones and dance like a fucking leprechaun.”)

Such a “hopelessly backwards-looking” posture can render an album unlistenable, as Stylus explained in a negative review of Guitar Romantic scarred by one too many “The _____s” bands. But the antidote for that particular ailment is sterling songs executed with unimaginable vitality, and every song on this album was a walk-off home run followed by a raging kegger. Are there chord progressions more invigorating than the one that kicks off “Modern Kicks”? Do riffs come more combustible than the notes that introduce “I’m A Pretender”? Can a pre-chorus arch any higher than the one from “Thorns and Roses” does? (And whose spirit can help but follow?) That’s just the first three tracks; we haven’t even touched on the Dinosaur-cum-Buzzcocks hot rod that is “Still Crazy,” or the blown-out Moondog matinee of “Throwaway Style,” or the finger-snapping supremacy of “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades.” This band had tapped into a powerful sweet spot, and in doing so they made a record that stands toe to toe with their heroes.

I’d like to think the Exploding Hearts, like the White Stripes, would have made their mark beyond the garage rock underground. At the very least, they would have toured beyond the West Coast, maybe even made it far enough eastward to play the Union. Online buzz was building, and a high-profile record deal was looming (with Lookout Records, says AllMusic). But they never had the chance to realize any of that. On July 20, 2003, just 110 days after Guitar Romantic’s release, three out of four band members died when their van swerved off the highway on the way back from a show at San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill. Rock ’n’ roll tragedies don’t get much worse than that.

Theirs would be no Sublime story. Guitar Romantic remains one of the cultiest of cult favorites, just like in its heyday. Those who know it love it, but it’s not that well-known outside places like the Union or the people who frequented indie rock websites in 2003. That fate seems preordained, van crash or no van crash; from a human perspective, the premature deaths of Matt Fitzgerald, Jeremy Gage, and Adam Cox were catastrophic, but in terms of legacy, I’m not sure the Exploding Hearts’ destiny would have been that much different had they lived on. It’s not likely they would have made an album as ebullient as Guitar Romantic again — that LP’s a lightning strike if there ever was one — but even if they did, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a present where they wield Jack White-level influence. There was no clearly defined persona driving the band, nor a distinct identity in the style to set it apart. It’s immensely likeable music, yet there are dozens of bands like theirs barely scraping by on tour. I can’t tell you how many similar groups tour through my town to perform for a minuscule audience. There is a sense of “been there, done that” with bands that so slavishly devote themselves to classic tropes, even bands that do it as vibrantly as the Exploding Hearts.

On the other hand, imagine for a moment that the White Stripes were the ones who died young. Their faces would adorn T-shirts alongside Cobain, Hendrix and Lennon. Their albums and singles would climb near the top of critics’ all-time best-of lists. They would be revered as genuine rock stars at a time when rock stars are all but extinct. Basically, it wouldn’t be all that different from what happened with Jack and Meg alive and well, give or take a tribute album. And that makes sense. Whereas the Exploding Hearts were about personality vanishing into a familiar archetype, the White Stripes were about shaping familiar archetypes in their own outsized image. One approach is superior in terms of taking over the world, but both have their virtues, as evidenced by the fraternal twin records that made 10 years ago today so monumental where garage rock is concerned.

Comments (43)
  1. Never heard of The Exploding Hearts, but I will check them out now. I gave Elephant a listen recently, first time in years, and found that it aged a lot better than I expected it to.

  2. Disagree with the author over Elephant. It’s better than Icky Thump. Top White Stripes Albums:

    1. White Blood Cells
    2. Elephant
    3. De Stijl
    4. Get Behind Me Satan
    5. Icky Thump
    6. s/t

  3. Nothing wrong with Elephant, but I do agree with the author’s feeling that it plays like a retread of White Blood Cells with some small refinements here and there. To me it seems like the least essential of their albums for that reason, but I can understand why other people might think of it as a favorite.

  4. Why does an article about music start with the author talking about himself and some bar scene he imagined existed at the college where he didn’t bother to learn anything about writing or journalism?

  5. It always bothers me that these articles are called “deconstructing”. Isn’t it kind of a given that the article is going to analyze it’s subject matter? How is this different from any other kind of article? ugh, stupid buzz words.

  6. Guitar Romantic is the best punk album of the 2000′s, hands down.

  7. I miss Jay Reatard.

  8. Fake vintage, like most of what Jack White stands for. Stripes have a handful of very entertaining songs but they didn’t actually contribute anything important to the development of music. Fashion over substance. Reference points over innovation. Costume over candidness.

    • bah! haha. no. They took the art-school theatrics of Led Zep and re-purposed the formula into something thrillingly archaic AND modern. Don’t know if you are fishing for downvotes, but at least you took the time to make your comment appear thoughtful. But you’re still wrong. Give “Elephant” a listen after “Led Zeppelin II” and see the thread of genius interwoven. Its past meets present, with novel reinvention. Everybody worth their salt knows Jack was born in the wrong era. His voice, guitar and writing is our time’s best example of Clapton, even though nobody will ever top Clapton. Anyway, in defense of the Stripes and their two major modern masterpieces, its red and white all the way baby.

    • Why are there always people who decide that any band with a strong image is style over substance? Fucking Beatles with their suits and matching haircuts, those Pendleton sponsored fashion poseurs the Beach Boys can piss off too.

  9. Elephant is hands on their best record. I don’t think its possible to overstate that :) It IS possible to understate that though. ;)

  10. There was an excellent article in the Willamette Week about the Exploding Hearts and talking to the only surviving member.
    http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-20441-exploding_hearts_4ever.html

  11. I’m seeing a lot of sniping at Jack White and the White Stripes because of the classic hipster logic: “They didn’t do anything new, there were a bunch of cooler, more obscure bands that pioneered their sound before they did. People are only into this band because they marketed themselves better.”

    Allow me to posit a different theory:
    While the White Stripes were the first time a lot of people were hearing that particular blend of blues and garage rock (I’ll freely admit that it was for me), the reason they became what they did was not because they pioneered that sound, but because the perfected it. The basic hole in your logic is that Jack White is preeminent guitar player of our generation, none of the people in these bands you’re harping on can even hold a candle to him. He’s also a vastly superior songwriter. So he was writing much better songs and playing them much better. So even if he owes a debt to the bands that came before, the ACTUAL MUSIC BEING PRODUCED was incredible. I love me some Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, but it’s not even in the same league. Jack White is a generational talent, even if he isn’t the first or the coolest person to play in that particular style.

    I’d like to see more music criticism that actually focuses on the music rather than spending a huge chunk of copy detailing the history of what bands were hippest and coolest. I don’t care what Jack White said in interviews, I never gave a crap about their back story or color scheme, the music stands on it’s on merits. Period. How about you stay focused on that?

    • Amen brutha!

      • Where in the article does it say Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was better than the Stripes? Or cooler? I just said the blues-punk sound had been around, but the Stripes did it in a way that captured people’s imaginations. I will concede, though, that I could have said more about Jack’s songwriting prowess; they might have become a media sensation without great songs, but they never would have endured like they have.

        • Guess what I’m saying is you’re projecting this “hipster logic” of “older, more obscure bands are better than popular bands” onto sentences that are only intended to provide context.

          • “The Stripes’ sound had been an underground trend for some time, dating at least to Sympathy For The Record Industry precursors the Gibson Bros. in the ’80s — they even had an amateurish female drummer! — and widely adored in the form of Gibson offshoot Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the ’90s. But those bands didn’t have the color scheme (an unwavering red, white, and black palette) or the colorful backstory (ex-spouses posing as brother and sister) that helped make Jack and Meg media darlings and instant rock royalty.”

            I realize you’ve left yourself some room to maneuver with “helped make,” but the clear gist here is that the only reason Jon Spencer didn’t explode across the country is because they didn’t participate in the style elements the White Stripes did. Which is pretty silly because A) you could just as easily highlight the outward stylistic elements of those bands and B) the idea that the White Stripes blowing up was driven by anything other than the fact that Jack White’s songwriting was much more melodic and accessible than his predecessors is clearly flawed logic. Plenty of other bands were selling a clear aesthetic, you fixate on the whole color scheme/backstory in this case because the White Stripes hit it big.

            There’s also the tone of the entire piece, which is filled with backhanded snipes at Jack White and the White Stripes.

          • ‘The first three Stripes records oozed with raw power, reclaiming the raucous, hedonistic Detroit proto-punk of MC5 and the Stooges and reframing it through the lens of Jack’s blues and country heroes. On Elephant, that feral sound is tamed ever so slightly, the way you’d expect from a major label debut. Compounding the nagging sense of underachievement was a handful of songs that appeared to be rewrites of White Blood Cells tracks: “There’s No Home For You Here” was “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” with a Freddie Mercury choir; “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” reeked of “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman”; “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” repurposed the McCartney-gone-twee sing-song of “We’re Going To Be Friends” to lesser effect.’

            For starters, you’re implying that their move away from Detroit garage rock is them sanding down their sound to satisfy a broader audience, which is ridiculous. They’re still a heavily distorted guitar-drums combo. Which has NEVER been a formula for pop success. The idea that the band ever compromised their aesthetics for popularity is pretty ridiculous. Especially when you look at the arc of their career, and follow it through with Jack White’s solo career, there’s clearly a trend towards country and folk and away from garage rock and delta blues. So the idea that they’re taking something off just to please people isn’t really defendable.

            I’d also argue that your suggestion that they’re just rehashing their older work is coming from a standard that you can’t possibly be applying to other bands. Really? Some of their work was similar to their past work? You mean like EVERY SINGLE ROCK BAND IN HISTORY?! Musically, the songs are similar. Because they were written and played by the same people. The idea that they’re simple rehashes, though, would seem to imply that almost all of rock and roll AND the blues are simple rehashes.

  12. “Compounding the nagging sense of underachievement was a handful of songs that appeared to be rewrites of White Blood Cells tracks”- Hey Chris I don’t know if your review/evaluation was just comment baiting, but I must very politely and sincerely disagree with you. It IS their crowning achievement in every possible way. A darker more refined output then their previous two records. “White Blood Cells” is nearly just as good, but “Elephant” really fleshed out the highlights on “cells”. I think you have backwards logic in your review which is ok since you’re the writer and its subjective anyway. But I hope “Elephant” will grow on you. Its chock full of everything man-you have your darker edgy side, your exploratory blues fusion, your lovely ballads and I simply can’t agree that “Cells” ( and were you serious about Icky Thump?) is the superior record. Surely “Cells” is kind of the underdog and critics gleefully like to stand up for the underdog ( i.e., “Tim” vs “Let it Be” or In Utero” vs “Nevermind”) but let the music speak for itself. It dos and does so thrillingly in ways that endear “Elephant” to be a proper classic and one of the best ever made.

    • Not comment baiting. I just couldn’t in good conscience rave about Elephant like it’s a classic record (or the best White Stripes record, anyway) when I’ve never felt that way about it. It seems like a slightly neutered, less inspired version of White Blood Cells, an album with better songs and more fiery dynamics. Give me Cells, Icky Thump or De Stijl any day of the week. I do think “Seven Nation Army” is absolute brilliance, though, and my enthusiasm for it came through in the piece. And I appreciate your well-argued alternate take.

      • You got it man. It was still a very well written piece and a good argument for their other stellar canon.

      • i appreciate your enthusiasm for seven nation army, but i’ve always kind of considered that song’s melody, especially the bassline, to be highly derivative. it’s catchy, but catchy in the sense that i kind of felt jack white, at the time, was pandering to the masses who kinda-sorta liked fell in love with a girl and wanted to throw a lowball first single out. not that it hurt their success or anything.

        i do, however, think elephant is totally deconstructing-worthy and your piece was a nice but exasperating reminder that it’s already been ten years since.

    • I think I’m with Chris on this one tbh. Elephant will undoubtedly be the album The White Stripes are remembered by, but White Blood Cells perfectly captured everything that was great about them. Elephant, while still packed with great songs, didn’t show off the brilliantly raw and exciting nature of the band in the same way WBC and De Stijl did.

  13. Ohio University blows.

  14. Finishing up at OU this semester….but most of the “indie” kids hangout at Casa or Jackie O’s now. The Union will still get bigger shows and crowds when an established band comes through town, but on your average night the indie scene is found at the other two places.

    • The “indie kids” aren’t really who I was thinking about when I described The Union’s core clientele. I’m generalizing severely here, but the people I’m thinking of are more punk rock/garage rock fans who tend to think of indie rock as too precious or pretentious for their taste. The lineup to this year’s Blackoutfest (linked above) sums up the sensibility pretty well. BTW the whole semester thing still weirds me out. How was the adjustment to no more massive Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s break?

      • Oh I gotcha, yeah I kinda misread what you were saying and jumped ahead to posting before I read over the whole article. Union hasn’t changed at all from when were here.

        I feel like the semester thing has been harder on the teachers than the students. The lack of huge break didn’t seem to throw people off as much as having spring break in the middle of a semester did. Coming back and still being in the same classes just did not seem right at all.

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