Of all the miracles the White Stripes pull off on their new album, "Elephant," none amazes more than how clear they steer from garage-rock's innumerable cliches. That's harder than it might sound. Limit yourself to guitar and drums -- as this duo does for most of "Elephant's" 14 tracks -- then march in the footsteps of '60s bluesmen and '70s rockers and a forest full of bear traps stands ready to snap at your ankles. All the power chords have been strummed. Every kid with a Stratocaster can solo at Mach 2 or faster. And there are only so many ways to denounce a two-timing, big-legged woman.
The White Stripes understand this. On "Elephant" the band tiptoes the line between homage and innovation and concocts a knockout blues that will be ruining eardrums for years to come. An early lock for a spot on 2003's list of the finest, it's boisterous, raw, exhilarating and tender. You read that right. Tender. For years, six-string heroes have cast themselves as either heartless womanizers or double-crossed losers, personas that singer-guitarist Jack White will occasionally affect. But he always seems more comfortable and more convincing in a guise that is all his own: the guitar god who cares.
We've met this character before, on previous White Stripes albums. The band -- Jack plus his drummer and ex-wife Meg White -- formed in Detroit in 1997 and released a self-titled debut album two years later. It followed that in 2000 with a blazing slide-guitar album called "De Stijl." The group was still known only to hard-core garage-rock revivalists when it recorded "White Blood Cells" in 2001, but within a few months the success of bands like the Strokes had labels sniffing through low-ceilinged clubs across the country for similar acts.
By last year, Jack and Meg had signed with V2 -- a subsidiary of Virgin -- and one of the more improbable success stories of 2002 began to unfold. The band turned up on MTV and opened dates for the Rolling Stones. College kids tired of the baloney rage of alt-metal acts discovered a new source for a daily dose of guitar-thrashing. The year-old "Cells" rose to the middle of Billboard's Top 100 list.
Success like that can ruin bands, but anyone who feared that the Stripes' journey to the big time would spoil them should worry no more. "Elephant" is their most assured work to date, and it builds on what the band has been doing without indulging in the luxuries that a bigger recording budget affords. You know from the first chords of "Hypnotize," one of a couple of ravers here that sound a bit like unearthed garage-rock treasures from the mid-'60s until you tune into the adolescent romance of Jack's lyrics ("I want to hold your little hand if I can be so bold / And be your right-hand man till your hands get old").
On "Little Acorns," Jack bucks up a lady friend by suggesting that she break apart her problems and deal with them one at a time, like a squirrel. (It's an idea he lifts from some '50s-sounding motivational speaker whose voice-over opens the tune.) His guitar on this number is producing metal as heavy as anything Zeppelin ever made, but the lyrics are more Oprah than Robert Plant.
The mixture is too novel to be resisted, and it works magnificently on a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Jack brings to the song the bewildered agony of a jilted high-school sophomore. Plus vicious power chords.
The Stripes go old-school on "Ball and Biscuit," a slow-boil of braggadocio and feedback that is so simple and so powerful it makes you wonder why there aren't a dozen bands making music like this. There's time out for a lovely piano ballad ("I Want to Be the Boy"), and a couple detours that I could have lived without: a slightly soppy acoustic guitar number ("You've Got Her in Your Pocket") and a momentum-sapping vocal turn by Meg ("In the Cold, Cold Night").
"Elephant" is at its adrenaline-pumping best when it behaves like its animal namesake -- a scary-looking beast with a big heart. Choosing a favorite of the Stripes' many sweet-tempered rampages isn't easy, but "Black Math," "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" and "The Air Near My Fingers" all contend. With V2 behind them, the Stripes are about to get very large, and Jack White's guitar-mensch approach will take its rightful place in the Hall of Great Guitar Rock Templates. And bass players beware: Your job might be in jeopardy.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)