Premature Evaluation: The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger
Jack White’s been so commonly associated with good-ol’-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll over the years that it’s been easy to overlook the fact that he often works similar to how dance producers do. For starters, there’s nothing more explicitly tied to how dance music operates than running your own label to put out releases from yourself and others — and more broadly, since emerging at the turn of the century with his and Meg White’s beloved, defunct White Stripes, White’s dipped in and out of various projects that more or less function as monikers under which he explores certain sounds.
Similar to the aliases used by electronic musicians like Luke Vibert, Aphex Twin, and Wolfgang Voigt, White unearths or returns to these projects when the mood suits him, and they often bear their own distinct sonic identity. Besides the White Stripes’ arty blues-punk, he’s unleashed jet-black scuzziness with the Kills’ Alison Mosshart as the Dead Weather, embraced an anything-goes mentality with the music released under his own name, and tilted towards country-rock windmills with power-pop whiz Brendan Benson and members of defunct Detroit garage-rock act the Greenhornes as the Raconteurs.
It’s that last act that White’s choosing to unearth this month with the Raconteurs’ third album, Help Us Stranger — the first album from the group in 11 years — and barring the fact that it’s been nigh impossible to predict the machinations behind White’s own creative internal clock, the timing for him to return to more straightforward territory is impeccable. Last year, he unleashed his third solo album, Boarding House Reach, a wild-eyed slab of eclecticism that was challenging and divisive in ways beyond the simple fact that, these days, meat-and-potatoes rock music is typically met with a collective eye-roll from the Twitterati.
Quite possibly the only album from 2018 to feature both a gonzo rap-rock song about the fickle nature of creativity and a bluesy anti-pet dirge, Boarding House Reach was fascinating even at its most quixotic, proof of White’s willingness to try anything once at the risk of total aesthetic failure. The album showed an adventurous side that, as pop-critical opinion has increasingly turned on various rockers of indie and mainstream stripes from the 2000s, White arguably doesn’t get enough credit for these days — but the stridency of Boarding House Reach was also grating to a point that it made one wonder what would happen if he applied such a sonic playfulness to material that, at the very least, carried a decent and listenable tune or two.
That’s where Help Us Stranger comes in: with the rest of the Raconteurs at his side, White has effectively split the difference between Boarding House Reach’s adventurousness and the band’s past trad-classic rock trappings, the results coming across as appealingly low-stakes. After a series of solo albums that, even at their strongest moments, possessed a nervy atmosphere not unlike grinding one’s teeth, Help Us Stranger is comparatively loose and limber, making for the most purely pleasurable collection of songs White’s released in years.
Credit is due to Benson, who — as with 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers and the 2008 quick-turnaround Consolers of the Lonely — shares writing credits with White on almost every Help Me Stranger track. Just like Consolers, the sole song he doesn’t is a cover; this time around it’s a rollicking take on psych-pop shaman Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness).” But That’s pretty much the only element that Help Me Stranger shares with Consolers; while the latter sagged from an overlong run time, the Raconteurs’ latest is a comparatively lean and mean 41 minutes, with brisk arrangements and more than a few grin-inducing breakdowns such as the double-time frenzy that closes out the boys-in-the-band opener “Bored And Razed.”
There’s a distinctly squishy, stoned silliness to parts of Help Me Stranger, none more evident than on the “Misty Mountain Hop”-ping “Only Child,” in which White sings about a “prodigal son” who’s “come back home again to get his laundry done.” Otherwise, the playfulness streaked across this album is mostly of the musical variety, like the multi-tracked vocals dotting the verse structure on “Don’t Bother Me” or the Tell-tale Heart-esque pulse that courses through “Now That You’re Gone.” There are guitar solos packed into nearly every empty corner of this thing, and plenty of the aggressively hammered piano lines that were so prevalent on Boarding House Reach, the latter playing much more enjoyably to the ears than on that record.
Suffice to say, if none of these sonic elements — or the idea of four guys bashing out melodic rock music that nonetheless treads very familiar ground — sound appealing to you, then you’re probably better off listening to nearly anything else. But the lack of formal innovation on Help Me Stranger packs its own odd appeal, especially when the old tricks are so capably performed. “Live A Lie” is straight-ahead Motor City garage rock that, ironically, bears some resemblance to once-White nemesis the Von Bondies’ “C’mon C’mon”; the guitar riff that kicks open on “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Happy Gilmore-closing “Tuesday’s Gone,” its midsection breaking into a gooey Beatles-esque breakdown.
Such naked callbacks to classic rock’s, er, classics inevitably bring to mind Greta Van Fleet, that shaggy-haired band of industry-beloved youngsters who’ve gained equal parts fame and critical consternation for joylessly regurgitating the entire Led Zeppelin catalog like a bird feeding its young. But there’s nothing that White and Benson have cooked up on Help Me Stranger that sounds like genre-reliant clock-punching; instead, they make playing around in the classic-rock sandbox sound like so much fun that you have to wonder why it took them eleven years to get back in the habit together. Hopefully, next time around they’ll make a point of getting together again sooner.