There are two kinds of songs on the White Stripes' Icky Thump. The first are primitive, grinding rockers--the kind people have known and cherished and unbuttoned one anothers' clothes to since the Rolling Stones first raided the blues bin. Let's call these the good songs. The second are so willfully odd and filigreed as to be almost beyond description, let alone comprehension. Suffice it to say that if you've ever wondered what a Patti Page, Herb Alpert and Slash tribute to Three Amigos might sound like, there's a song on Icky Thump just for you.
Eccentricity has always been a part of the White Stripes' appeal--six albums in, they're still working the ironic-novelty-costume act--but for most listeners the real draw is the melodies. On Icky Thump, there are four really good ones. You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told) stomps all over a passive lover's heart with a Led Zeppelin--quality riff and an impossibly effortless vocal, while the sweet, diffident A Martyr for My Love for You changes the pace and proves Jack White can sing ballads too. Along with Catch Hell Blues and Effect and Cause, they remind you that the White Stripes are at their best when they're at their simplest, with Jack on electric guitar and Meg White behind her rickety drum kit.
Of course, there are nine more songs on Icky Thump, and none of them are simple. There's an alien invasion-- style Mellotron solo on the title track and what one hopes is a humorous attempt to reintroduce the bagpipe as a legitimate rock instrument on Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn. These are Top 10 fare compared with the album-stopping Conquest, in which Jack, Meg and a band of mariachis exhume a Corky Robbins tune. It's funny. Once.
Icky Thump's lunacy is harmless, of course, but when a band this good screws around in its prime--even when part of that band's charm is based on screwing around--it feels a little wasteful. The White Stripes are too weird and talented to be boring, but it sounds like they might be a little bored.