Music Reviews

Tired and Older In Spirit and Sound, the Raconteurs Return on HELP US STRANGER

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Genre: Garage Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Help Us Stranger,” “Only Child,” “What’s Yours Is Mine,” “Don’t Bother Me,” “Thoughts and Prayers”

Let’s get this out of the way: I love Jack White. He is a phenomenal guitar player, a solid songwriter, and a very gifted entertainer. Pretty much every project he has been involved with has left some kind of mark on commercial rock music over the past 20-something years. But I also love ripping on Jack White, because it’s incredibly easy. Joking about how he acts that he invented the blues or vinyl records, his ridiculous guacamole demands whilst on the road, releasing rare vinyl attached to balloons into the environment, his incredibly stupid and pretentious segment in IT MIGHT GET LOUD where he teaches a child version of himself how to jam… the list can go on. Sure, it’s funny, but for me, it doesn’t take away from most of the music he releases. After all, plenty of prolific artists do and say really stupid shit that has next to nothing to do with their art (I’m looking at you Bono, Kanye, and Morrissey).

I was considering listening to his latest polarizing solo effort BOARDING HOUSE REACH to compare to the Raconteurs’ latest release, HELP US STRANGER, but ultimately I decided against it. After years of following the man’s creative outputs, I’ve figured out how and when I like my Jack White music, and I like it when his sometimes overreaching ambitions are confined by the sonic limitations of being in a two-piece band. I like when he collaborates with other capable songwriters and musicians, and is willing to give up some of the spotlight to serve the overall composition. Which means I really like the Raconteurs.

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The ringing arena rock guitars and rolling drums a la “Magical Mystery Tour” of HELP US STRANGER opener “Bored and Razed” were made for summer highway driving—this is the Raconteurs doing what they do best, tastefully trading lead vocal lines, bouncing between simple chord progressions and catchy lead lines, all while carried by the rock solid rhythm section of Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. While the band has been dropping tracks for this record since late December, this is definitely the one that’s going to be played on the airwaves for the next few months. The title track as well is another stand out, opening up with a distorted vocal line that sounds like it was recorded in White’s Voice-O-Graph recording booth that Neil Young used to make his 2014 album A LETTER HOME, enhanced by Keeler’s unique use of an upside-down snare and the overall tone of the percussion

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Still, HELP US STRANGER arrives a mighty 11 years after the band’s sophomore effort, CONSOLERS OF THE LONELY, and this band definitely sounds older. Brendan Benson, White, Lawrence, and Keeler put forth an album that taps into the vibes of their previous records, but while there are some really solid selections here, a lot of them simply sound tired. “Only Child” is a Benson ballad that perfectly uses various bass and guitar pedals along with some light synth to spice up what would otherwise be a bland chord progression. While there are some choice lyrics such “Only child / the prodigal son / has come back home to get his laundry done,” this is the first serving we get of a tired and uninterested vocal delivery that prevents most of the Benson offerings from reaching the same heights as previous songs like “Old Enough.” The waltzy outro is a nice treat and it would have been interesting to see them do something more with it.

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“Don’t Bother Me” is an especially conflicting track. The music makes it a rolling rocker, with three unique variations of the main riff that keeps things from getting stale. Again, Keeler shines with his ability to groove all over the kit and White’s solo is a testament that the man knows how to shred when the occasion calls for it. But it is a little difficult to swallow some of White’s angry lyrics aimed at posers, millennial swipers, and some not-too-subtle allusions to our country’s current administration. This comes back to the earlier point about it being easy to rip on White, but it’s not always fair to do so. Are there vibes that match his old-man-shaking-fist-yelling-get-off-my-lawn mentality that came through in his recently released statement putting “clickbait music journalism” sites on blast? Sure. But just because he’s older and more successful than he once was doesn’t mean he can’t take issue with social issues around him today. I certainly buy his sentiments here a lot more than I do than those expressed in something like, say, Eddie Vedder’s half-baked ideas of rebellion in Pearl Jam’s latest monstrosity “Deny Me.”

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And of course, there are some clunkers that can’t be salvaged. “Shine A Light on Me” is incredibly forgettable—so let’s just forget it. “Somedays” does not fare that much better. Another slow burner led by Benson, the simple lyrics and restrained delivery leave much to be desired until the change-up in the very final moments of the song. “Now That You’re Gone” is a 1950s teen break-up tragedy ballad that the band has explored before but it fails to hold its own when compared to songs in the same vein like “Many Shades of Black.” “Live a Lie” relies too much on simplicity and gets real boring real quick. “Hey Gyp” is a Donovan cover, and while I did not feel compelled to go listen to the original after hearing their take on it, I can only assume that this version rocks significantly harder. (Please feel free to let me know if I am completely off base.)

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The album picks up towards the end with “What Yours Is Mine,” a quick groove that comes in under the three-minute mark. The lyrics are simple, but the constant changing of the riffs, tempo, and beats keep it interesting, along with great vocal interplay and harmonizing between Benson and White. “Thoughts and Prayers” unfortunately lacks the musical epicness of previous album closers “Blue Veins” and “Carolina Drama,” but features some of the stronger lyrics on the album and the delivery is more heartfelt that most of the other tracks as well. The song is a search for answers to the ever-prevalent question of “Why does everything fucking suck so hard right now?” White doesn’t seem to stumble upon any answers over the course of the track’s five minutes, and laments that he used to look “up at the beautiful sky / but now the world has turned to gray / There’s got to be a better way.” The song incorporates banjo and strings that were heavily prevalent on CONSOLERS and the instrumental break is truly a thing of beauty.

HELP US STRANGER is by far not the best Raconteurs album to date—in fact, it’s probably my least favorite of the three. But it’s still a solid offering. Overall there is a pleasant sonic vibe that channels nostalgia of classic rock greats. HELP US STRANGER is painted with pieces of Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and the Beatles in a way that is much more enjoyable way than a contemporary rock band like Greta Van Fleet, who poaches from the past with zero shame. Jack White has made it this far with three different chart-topping bands, a lucrative solo career, and an ever-expanding vinyl empire, so it would be unreasonable to assume the man would not have any hiccups along the way. Plenty of artists have found popularity for releasing things with far less to say and with far less substance. Am I still going to rip on him for some of the pretentious things he does or says in the future? Probably. But I’ll also keep buying his music and paying to see him in concert. I respect the man for taking a stand against the music outlets who hate for the sake of hating, and for making said stand in a way that demonstrates a healthy level of self-awareness. Rock on, buddy. Now go drink the Kool-Aid and buy a fucking cell phone.

Jake Mazon
Jake Mazon is the host of The Final Sound radio program on VPN, as well as a co-host on THE REAL ROCKER THEATER and WHAT'S YOUR RECORD? podcasts. There's a really good chance that he's already read the new article about what offensive thing Morrissey said this week, so please stop sending him the links.

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