Rumors circled the past two years that the quirky duo of Meg and Jack White, better known to the rock world as the White Stripes, was no more. Much had changed since the release of the minimalist band's last album, 2005's highly experimental Get Behind Me Satan.
Jack, the Stripes' visionary, left his hometown of Detroit for Nashville, Tenn., where he settled into married life and had a daughter. He also formed a side project called the Raconteurs and released Broken Boy Soldiers, one of last year's best indie-rock albums.
But what about his magical musical marriage with Meg? Now that he's living in Nashville, is Jack gonna go all country on us? After all, he produced Loretta Lynn's modern-day classic, 2004's Van Lear Rose.
No need to worry. The White Stripes are intact and rocking hard. The duo's new album, Icky Thump, hit stores this week. Brash and pointed, the CD builds on the musical eclecticism of Get Behind Me Satan but in a less self-conscious way.
Dramatic, off-the-cuff instrumentation - mariachi horns, flamenco flourishes, even bagpipes - lace the invigorated, stomping arrangements. Whereas Get Behind Me Satan felt contrived in spots, Icky Thump grinds and chugs along with assured flashes of vintage punk and the blues.
But the music isn't all incendiary guitar riffs and crashing cymbals. As expected on any White Stripes album, there are breathable musical excursions. The twosome venture into Celtic folk territory on "Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn," which works and sounds warmly genuine. "Conquest" is a feverish rock cover of a Patti Page tune from the 1950s. The song, fun and slightly over-the-top, sends the album's kitsch factor through the roof.
With its manic spoken-word verses and heavy, strident guitars, "Little Cream Soda" is one of Icky Thump's standout tracks. It's followed by the swaggering "Rag and Bone," in which Jack and Meg imagine themselves as colorful junk collectors: "Bring out your junk and we'll give it a home."
For all its clever eclecticism and brilliant, shuffling blues rhythms, Icky Thump isn't flawless. "St. Andrew (The Battle Is in the Air)" is a noisy, psychedelic number that sounds as pretentious as its title. It's hardly listenable. And although "A Martyr for My Love for You" boasts a memorable melody, the CD's lone ballad goes nowhere. The two cuts halt the flow of an otherwise fluid album.
But generally, Icky Thump is as energetic as any of the White Stripes' previous albums. At times playful, sometimes stinging but always fanciful, the new CD is a mature showcase of the duo's bold, thrillingly strange musical union.