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The White Stripes

Icky Thump

Warner Bros.

Jack White used to have a feeling called the blues. Then he signed with a major label and moved to Nashville.

A recipe for artistic disaster, right?

Just the opposite, in fact. "Icky Thump" is easily the year's best album so far — and probably the best of the White Stripes' seven LPs.

"Icky Thump" manages to capture the essence of turn-of-the-century White Stripes while largely avoiding self-repetition; it's as though Mr. White took the pop-informed experience of his Raconteurs side project and superimposed it on the Stripes' basic template.

Mr. White's grunge-bluesy slide guitar eventually emerges on the penultimate "Catch Hell Blues," but the track really is just an excuse for him to show off a very cool guitar technique called palm-muting.

Preceding it is an eclectic, consistently absorbing batch of songs that find Mr. White exploring world music and quoting from an equally eclectic range of classic-rock sources.

No, you wouldn't be wrong to hear on "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)" echoes of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody."

Also, the start-and-stop, in-no-hurry groove of "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" sounds to me like the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain." Or maybe early Steely Dan.

Whatever.

The album has hooks galore. Who cares where Mr. White borrowed them from? Unlike the Stripes' previous effort — the subdued, transitional, piano-driven "Get Behind Me Satan" — "Icky Thump" was clearly, and by all accounts happily, written for mass consumption.

Mr. White is a two-headed monster — an author of simple, graspable hooks as well as a specialist of shattering noise. He confidently balances these aspects of his craft here, such that the catchiness and din form a tense, electrifying counterpoint.

No sooner does the kickoff title track of "Icky Thump" reel you in with a muscular Zeppelinesque guitar riff than Mr. White is off and running on a raga tangent that recalls that warbly, Clavioline track John Lennon laid on "Baby, You're a Rich Man."

To quote that great song, what a thing to do.

To keep the listener on his aural toes, Mr. White intermingles stomping rockers including "Bone Broke" and "Little Cream Soda" with offbeat experiments such as the Celtic "Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn," which is followed by an extension of same on "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)," featuring a typically marginal vocal contribution from drummer Meg White.

He edges dangerously close to parody on a cover of Patti Page's "Conquest," on which he amps up the shuffling Latin rhythms of the original into a cloyingly melodramatic indie-rock spaghetti Western — a rare misstep for Mr. White, who, judging from his work with Loretta Lynn and the early Stripes' cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," has shown an exceptional interpretive empathy for female heartland singers.

Perhaps the exercise was meant for a laugh. There's more evidence of this later on the hilarious, partially spoken track "Rag and Bone," on which Jack and Meg pose as yard-sale connoisseurs, ready to take priceless junk off your hands. ("You think it's trash, but it's not/We'll be takin' whatever you got.")

How sweet it all goes down — the crunching riffs, the shrieking, atonal solos and the worldly excursions — with the acid-humored twang of "Icky Thump's" last tune, "Effect and Cause." With just an acoustic guitar, three cowboy guitar chords and some wobbly percussion from Miss White, the White Stripes pack much sociological insight into a rhetorical slap at a lover who makes the common analytical mistake of confusing cause for effect.

"I didn't rob a bank 'cause you made up the law," Mr. White sings, later adding: "If you're heading for the grave, you don't blame the hearse."

Give that man an honorary degree in something — along with that long-overdue Grammy.

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