Review Summary: Twilight of the gods.
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Raconteurs, because they taught me to temper my expectations at a young age. Growing through my teenage years, there were few artists I admired more than Jack White and loved more than Brendan Benson. The White Stripes’ earlier records remain deeply imprinted into my brainstem, more a primeval force of nostalgia than artistic statements. Brendan Benson’s stellar, underrated ‘00s run – 2002’s Lapalco
, 2005’s The Alternative to Love
, and 2009’s My Old, Familiar Friend
– did more than any other artist’s work to brand me as a power-pop obsessive, soundtracking an embarrassing number of mix tapes from eighth grade through college. Broken Boy Soldiers
, the Raconteurs’ 2006 debut, though, proved that old adage about the sum being less than its parts. It’s an enjoyable record to be sure, but even to a fanboy like me it was uneven, scattered and, worst of all: trivial
Then, it all went away: the Raconteurs released Consolers of the Lonely
, a downright gorgeous, if overstuffed, Southern gothic masterpiece that was promptly ignored by the world at large, and White, Benson, and the Greenhornes making up the rhythm section abandoned the project for greener creative pastures. For White, that led to the Dead Weather (with bassist Jack Lawrence) and a line of solo records, the quality of which eerily track his descent from rock god to a Willy Wonka-esque figure with an aversion to hooks and a penchant for gramophone-era country music; for Benson, there were a couple more increasingly colorless albums, and then silence. That Help Us Stranger
now arrives seemingly out of nowhere to revive the Raconteurs brand at the exact time its principals’ fortunes are flagging (relatively, of course, for White) could give the impression of a desperate grasp for relevance at best or a lazy cash grab, at worse. My expectations, suffice to say, were sufficiently tempered.
I’m happy to report that Help Us Stranger
avoids either of those scenarios: the Raconteurs’ third album may not reach the heights of Consolers of the Lonely
, and with its dedication to no-frills, FM rock ‘n roll (they cover a goddamn Donovan song), it already sounds slightly dated, but it’s the purest, most fun
music either White or Benson have put out in over a decade. When White’s squalling verses kick into the soaring California sunset of Benson’s chorus on opener “Bored and Razed,” I want to punch a hole in the wall; kick down the door; air guitar across my living room. “Old Child” and “Shine The Light On Me” remind me of the simple beauty that Benson’s multifaceted melodies can still bring. And “Don’t Bother Me” is a wincing reminder of White’s lyrical deterioration, but damn if that solo doesn’t rip. But while it’s White’s reputation that is most rehabilitated here, it’s Benson’s melodic fingerprints that can be found all over Help Us Stranger
, tossing off melancholy power-pop diamonds like “Only Child” and encouraging White to stay within the lines while focusing the guitarist’s considerable musical prowess into tight vocal performances and beefier riffs.
Benson and White have done better things on their own throughout their careers than Help Us Stranger
, and it’s fair to ask whether those times are in the past. Yet tracks like the woozy, full-bodied “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” and the punchy, funky “Help Me Stranger” demonstrate what both are still capable of together: effortless vocal chemistry, a give-and-take between White’s vibrant guitar playing and Benson’s well-worn, everyman pathos, and a keen eye towards the best hook, all supported by a rhythm section that has apparently only gotten better with age. The negative bits that afflict the songwriters individually – clunky lyrics, a tendency to trend towards clutter, influences taking up whole damn sleeves – certainly remain here, but somehow, together, the couple’s issues never overwhelm, never distract from the Raconteurs’ thesis statement of just making great, concise rock songs. Just when I thought these parts would always smother the whole, Help Me Stranger
comes along and fu
cks up my expectations one more time.