Wednesday, June 26, 2019

album review: 'help us stranger' by the raconteurs

Of all of Jack White's side projects, this was the one I least expected him to revisit.

Hell, I thought he had moved on years ago, mostly because The Raconteurs felt like a precursor to everything Jack White would do in the 2010s, laying a foundation of classic rock for Jack White in the latter half of the 2000s to springboard his weirder retro-blues and garage side to wildly varying results in the 2010s. And I'll admit they were always the act that tended to draw the least of my attention, even as you could argue they were the most consistent Jack White side project. I attribute a lot of this to co-frontman Brendon Benson who had a much more measured, conventional rock tone to his song structures and compositions, but that might stand as the most telling drawback of the group, because of every stylized stab into rock Jack White made, The Raconteurs were the most backwards-looking and conventional. And sure, the albums were fine - probably getting the most interesting when they mined the compositional tension between White and Benson - but they were projects that didn't really add much great or boundary pushing in rock in comparison to Blunderbuss, or even Boarding House Reach, an album I'm mixed on to this day but at least was taking chances.

And I bring up Boarding House Reach because it's hard not to feel like the mixed reception or even backlash to that project might have prompted Jack White to reunite with Benson - sure, it's been teased for a while, but if he wanted an easy way to appease an increasingly unpleasable audience, a new album from The Raconteurs over ten years since Consolers of the Lonely would probably help. But at the same time I had low expectations - the songs would probably be fine, but firmly indebted to classic rock and blues and nothing great or challenging. But hey, I'm open to being wrong, so what did we get from Help Us Stranger?

Honestly, if I wasn't going to use this opportunity to talk about the nostalgia dollar that Jack White has repeatedly cashed in over and over, I'd put this on the Trailing Edge in a heartbreat. Because like with any album by The Raconteurs, there's just not a lot to say - generally fine retro blues and hard rock that almost always suffers in comparison to the iconic classics because while Jack White can get 'the sound', the songs inside of it just aren't as strong or compelling. Hell, I'd make the argument that coming off of their sophomore album where the interplay between Benson and White was most pronounced and gave the band some form of identity, this is a step back - not bad by any stretch, but certainly forgettable and it's more than a little annoying at this point that Jack White making serviceable nostalgia fodder is enough to placate an audience.

Now that's a lot of loaded statements, so let me back up, because I am the guy who likes a good retro throwback with texture and character - hell, I review country, for God's sake! Of course, the asterisk that always gets tacked onto that is how for as much as I appreciate a retro sound, I much prefer it if the artist actually takes the older, textured, analog tones and pushes them in a contemporary or challenging direction - look at Kyle Craft or Ian Noe or Ron Gallo, all men who can take old school production or compositional techniques or even delivery and add meat to make them feel new again. And with this revival of The Raconteurs, you can't tell me they're doing that, especially in the songwriting and lyrics - I think if we're all being honest Jack White has never been a strong lyricist, and on this album as much as ever you get a lot of the same preening posturing and blues imitations that don't really have the guts to punch higher. And this was an issue I highlighted way back when I reviewed Lazaretto, where our album's protagonist is more content to be passive, to brood and smolder and rely upon that antisocial "magnetism" to draw attention, and it's already lost its luster for me. Take 'Don't Bother Me', one of the few songs here that actually try to get the push-pull of White and Benson working in the composition, and it's a kissoff where they call out some preening, apathetic poser... but it's hard not to look at songs like 'Bored And Razed' and 'Somedays (I Don't Feel Like Trying)' and note the hypocrisy, even as the second desperately tries to pile up the outro to offset it. And that's not getting into the attempts to be kind of topical like the closer 'Thoughts And Prayers', which seems more apt to wallow in its nihilism than actually take a chance with that kissoff, but when the first song emphasizes how he's avoiding both left and right, you realize this project not about to take much of a chance on anything. And yes, I know that The Raconteurs was basically a hangout and jam project from the start, old friends just knocking back the homages to classics, but some of those older classics actually tried to take chances and ramp up tension, and that's before we get to the framing of songs like 'What's Yours Is Mine', with fun lyrics like 'it doesn't matter where you draw the line / I'm gonna cross it almost every time' - classy.

But fine, I'll concede The Raconteurs have never tried to be all that lyrical, and if you're just looking at the straightforward formula, this can be easy enough to like if you just tune into the guitarwork. And that interplay combined with the vocal harmonies is probably the best part of the album - it's well-produced, it's crunchy, and the keyboard embellishments rarely feel like they get in the way, I do question why they covered 'Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)' complete with lo-fi vocal filters in order to highlight exactly how close they're trying to make it sound, but that's the second thing that irks me about this: there are more references to other songs and bands here than moments that stand alone. The most blatant example is 'Don't Shine The Light On Me', which is trying so damn hard to be a Queen and Beatles hybrid it's not even funny, but it's really all over the project in how it's trying to slip itself into a higher canon of 70s classic rock material on texture and reference alone. Not an explicit copycat, but close enough to flip that switch in the audience, only a few steps removed from what Greta Van Fleet does, only a bit better because there's a little more muscle and it feels tonally coherent within the individual songs. That's not saying there aren't cut I like - as much as they annoy me lyrically there's some crunch to 'Bored And Razed' and I do like how much they let the fiddles saw frantically on 'Thoughts And Prayers' - it's a better closer than I expected. Hell, 'Sunday Driver' is dumb fun, but it's got a solid tune, and it's very obvious why it and 'Now That You're Gone' were chosen as an early single release last year, now tacked on with the Donovan cover to pad the run-time. Of course, the larger annoyance for me is that for much as Jack White wants to pull upon blues for songs like the title track, I really wish he'd give the bass an interesting melody for some punchier interplay - it's almost mixed into the kickdrum or rhythm guitar at some points, and that really hurts the foundational groove! But that highlights the weird contradictions with this project: it's produced to sound like vintage classic rock - and that'll win a lot of people over, myself included - and the melodies are pretty sharp and bright, but it's slotting itself onto rock playlists and radio by birthright, not because the majority of this record is taking a chance or rising above album filler, and if it's trying to be loose and fun... well, that doesn't really match a fair chunk of the lyrics.

But as a whole... look, it's hard to rate albums like this because, in essence, it's doing exactly what its audience wants: unchallenging, shamelessly retro in all sensibilities, with enough well-produced good tunes to plug the gap. It's never going to be anyone's all time favourite album, but it's not trying to be - it's comfortable, it's safe, it's complacent, it's not here to push buttons, it's corporate and market-tested. Quite frankly, it's an album that mainstream rock will absolutely love - and then they'll wonder why mainstream rock has been stagnant artistically with a shrinking market share for years now! And if you're about to protest this, even coming from rock, let me say this: if Help Us Stranger had been released by any no-name act, this would have been discarded and forgotten on its first listen. So yeah, 5/10, for the fans only, and as for Jack White... look, he said he doesn't want to be bothered. I'm okay obliging that - so long as he does the same to us.

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