Dissecting Robert Hilburn

Los Angeles Times Calendar readers no doubt are familiar–and no doubt frustrated– with the sycophantic ramblings of Robert Hilburn, their forever reigning pop music critic. Long known for his Bruce Springsteen and Bono puff pieces rather than any display of insight, of late he has moved on to the current alterna-darlings such as Coldplay and White Stripes and embarassingly bandwagoned onto the buzz bands of the moment (Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, et al) in a transparent grasp at relevance. His writings of late have deteriorated into strings of nonsequitors where he hops from one baseless point to another. The mess of awkward jumbles of prepositions, participles and bad metaphors make you wonder if anyone dares edit him over there. It is time for the Times to fade him out and free up those column inches for someone else. Just have him phone in the occasional drooling piece when the Boss has a new product to schill. Yesterday’s “review” of the White Stripes follows verbatim below, annotated with commentary for your reading pleasure:

Rock of a fresher stripe
The White Stripes continue to defy rock ’n’ roll convention in concert at the Greek.
By Robert Hilburn
August 17, 2005

At a time when many of our most prized bands are relying chiefly in concert on songs 30 or more years old, it was exhilarating Monday at the Greek to be wowed by tunes written less than seven months ago.

That old favorite: open with a strange, baseless statement as a foundation upon which to heap the praise upon the subject of piece. “Most prized bands”? “…songs 30 or more years old”? Are these references to The Eagles, the Stones, Paul McCartney? Who else could this be out of who is currently touring? Did they turn you down for an interview perhaps?

In fact, the only complaint about the White Stripes’ captivating performance was that the duo didn’t do more from its challenging new album, “Get Behind Me Satan.”

Ah yes, the first of many preformed phrases from the Review-o-Tron 6000–“captivating performance”

Who else would go through a 90-minute show without even plugging – er, playing – their latest?

You really should drop in more of that ironic voice the kids are using these days with stuff like the self-interrupting “er.”

But singer-guitarist Jack White has never surrendered to rock ’n’ roll convention. He’s such a spontaneous performer that he probably didn’t even realize when he walked off stage that he hadn’t performed that sing-along single, “My Doorbell.”

I have it on good authority that Jack White has in fact surrendered to rock n’ roll convention. And not just because he dated a movie star, married a model, wears red pants and plays guitar in a rock n’ roll band.

This may have been White’s first L.A. concert since his recent marriage to model Karen Elson, but his heart still belongs to rock ’n’ roll.

Wait, his “heart still belongs to rock n’ roll” but he “has never surrendered to rock n’ roll convention”? Does not compute.

When he and drummer Meg White walked on stage after a taut, satisfying set by the roots-leaning Greenhornes trio, a spotlight directed the audience’s attention to a large mural at the rear of the stage.

This might be true.

The painting was a scene right out of Adam and Eve: that tempting apple, placed in a paradise setting, just waiting for some mortal to come along and take that forbidden bite.

Damn. You just had to go and interpret it for us.

The mural underscored one of the chief themes of the “Satan” album: the struggle between innocence and betrayal in relationships. In fact, there are times, especially in “Blue Orchid,” when you can almost feel someone taking a bite out of that apple as White sings about the loss of innocence.

I don’t understand. Are we the apple and we feel someone bite into us, or is it that the apple is separate from us and someone else bites it and we feel this? And can something be both “in fact” and “almost” simultaneously? But we’ll let you slide on the this one.

On stage, the Stripes stretched the theme of the mural and album to reflect on the ever-present tension between rock ’n’ roll integrity and compromise.

“…Ever-present tension between rock n’ roll integrity and compromise.” O-kay.

When the Detroit native pledged “No, I’m never gonna let you down,” during “The Nurse” midway through the set, he seemed to be speaking as much about being true to his music as to a loved one.

Awkward syntax aside, this kind of speculation is pointless. And don’t say “seem.” Dint your teachers learn you right?

The narrator in the “Satan” songs has seen so much betrayal and compromise in life and in music that he is wary.

Haven’t we all, Bob. Haven’t we all.

In the show’s darkest moment Monday, White sat alone at the piano at the start of the encore and sang “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).” It’s a country-flavored tune that includes some alternately tender and wickedly funny lines about almost overpowering need.

Eventually, the character in the song gets to a point so painful that suicide seems like the most comforting step:

I go down to the river / Filled with regret / I go down and I wonder / If there was any reason left.

Yet, the character rebounds, underscoring an essential optimism that runs through most of the White Stripes’ catalog.

This move of block quoting lyrics is Bob’s latest irritating technique. Pulling words from songs out of context and then mangling the interpretation to meet your vague thesis and pad out the word count is an old book report trick. I know this move well; it got me through AP English.

In both his dazzling guitar work and his passionate singing on his heavily blues-based rock, White clings to the possibility in every life for redemption and change.

“Dazzling guitar work” – Try again. “Heavily blues-based rock” – Swing and a miss. “Clings to the possibility in every life for redemption and change” – Strike 3.

When White and his “sister” (as he calls his former wife) left the stage for the evening, the spotlight again went on the apple, still gloriously whole.

Yes, we all know by now that Meg is not really his sister. You are not privy to some exclusive cool kids knowledge here. And what did you expect, that the still photo backdrop would animate or something? Is it really any kind of revelation that it is unchanged?

True enough, in just four years the Stripes have gone from playing local clubs to headlining four nights at the 6,000-plus-seat Greek Theatre without surrendering their ideals. Yet they have has lost none of their sense of a rock ’n’ roll mission.

Wait a minute, you said earlier he has “never surrendered to rock n’ roll convention” and yet they “have lost none of their sense of rock n’ roll mission”?

Like a quarterback calling an audible at the line of scrimmage, White turns the stage into a working laboratory, reaching for whatever seems to fuel his imagination at the moment, whether it’s one of his songs or one of Dolly Parton’s old tales of romantic desperation. Meg’s rudimentary drumming adds an essential warmth and human dimension to Jack’s virtuosity.

So is the quarterback a laboratory scientist in the off-season, or is this a laboratory on the sidelines of the football field which he runs to during timeouts? Is the scientist/quarterback experiment concocting the synthetic fuel for his imagination? Mixed (and bad) metaphors.

Aside from his falsetto-edge vocals, White’s chief weapon is his electric guitar, which he plays like a man obsessed. To get the desired emotion, White makes the instrument wail, howl, purr, shriek, convulse and seduce – sometimes during the same eight bars.

We’ll skip the “falsetto-edge” coinage for now. But “wail, howl, purr, shriek, convulse and seduce”? You just had to add “seduce”. You could have stopped, but you just had to use all five.

If White had come along in the ’60s, you could have pictured him going through what once seemed radical moves for guitarists, including setting the instrument on fire or smashing it to bits on the stage.

If Jack came along in the 60’s, you “could have pictured him…” Is this back then or now doing those Hendrix tricks? Your subjects and verbs agree about as well as the Crips and Bloods.

But those actions have been clichés for so long that he has to turn to new devices to maintain his edge. So, he took the radical step in most of the new album of simply ignoring the guitar.

Yes, that newist of devices, the piano.

To better frame the tender emotions in some of the songs, White turned to piano and even, in the case of “My Nurse,” to marimba.

Yeah, that’s the one.

Some Stripes fans have been a little uneasy about the move to keyboards, but the audience on Monday embraced those gentler numbers mightily.

We surveyed 100 White Stripes fans and asked them how they felt about the move to keyboards and the number one answer on the board was “uneasy.”

White remains a guitar-slinger at heart, delivering blistering versions Monday of such powerhouse rockers as “Seven Nation Army” and “The Hardest Button to Button.”

Jack, run! Hilburn can see what lives in your heart!

But his courage in following his instincts in the new album and on the new tour stand as the greatest proof of his own integrity and power.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s integrity + power = courage.

Man, that’s enough to make a guy willingly read Pitchfork.