The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers

[12 May 2006]

By Dan Raper

The Raconteurs are early on to this, which could be one of the emerging trends of 2006: the rebirth of rock in indie music. I think it was after a Wolfmother concert my friend Alan and I realised again how appealing straight-out, no-pretensions rock can be. You know, the kind of band that dedicates every song in their set to “the ladies” (as Eagles of Death Metal did opening for the Strokes in New York (brilliant)). In the face of a fierce, fierce riff, who needs irony or ‘80s dance beats?

As far as indie rock goes, the Raconteurs count as something of a supergroup, I reckon: Brendan Benson from Brendan Benson on guitars/vocals/keys; Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler from the Greenhornes on bass and drums; and Jack White from, yeah, the White Stripes filling the same duties (different times) as Benson. The story of their formation goes something like this: friends Benson and White wrote this tune that Benson thought was just too good to give to White for the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan album. The song led to the creation of a band, and the band an album. The album is Broken Boy Soldiers, the Raconteurs’ blog-hyped debut.

The song that started it all is “Steady as She Goes”. It kicks off Broken Boy Soldiers, and it’s surely the garage rock anthem of the year: the year’s “C’mon C’mon” or “Seven Nation Army”, with a chorus that explodes out of the fabric of the song, and a fuller sound that helps fill out White’s reedy voice. Well, “Steady as She Goes” gives a bit of an inaccurate representation of the Raconteurs’ songs, since it’s more or less a White Stripes song plus bass. So, what do they sound like? Simply: garage-tinged/power-pop/rock ‘n’ roll, the kind of straightforward verse-chorus-bridge songs that do well on commercial radio.

If only the rest of the album were as good as the lead single. Of course it’s a natural thought that if a band has formed on the back of a single song, the other nine songs on their CD will have a difficult time living up.

The Raconteurs come closest when they just let loose, have fun with classic riffs and melodies. “Hands” opens with a classic hard-rock AC/DC riff, before dropping into a pop melody as unapologetic as a Foo Fighters single. “Broken Boy Soldiers” sounds like Wolfmother when they sound like the White Stripes. With more substantial, hollow cowbell percussion, a sawn bass drone, and a screaming prankster-persona reminiscent of Jack Black, the song is all gleeful celebration. “Level” has a bluesy back-and-forth between Benson and White and a killer riff.

Some of the genre experiments in the disc’s second half don’t work so well. Aforementioned “Yellow Sun” is a kind of country-influenced Shins knock-off, all sunny acoustics without the existential observation. “Store Bought Bones” flirts with a heavier, industrial-blues guitar riff with a chorus stuttering with distortion, that just chases itself in circles.

The Raconteurs are certainly not a Jack White project alone. Benson’s conversational, conventional songwriting influence is most clearly on the softer tracks, like “Together” and “Call It a Day”. The former, with its acoustic guitar, syrupy keys and slow-jam-ready melody could immediately bring out calls of “Good Riddance”, but it’s attractive enough, in a soft-rock way. “Call It a Day” is much more successful—one of the album highlights, full of sweet resignation. But most of the time (and in fact throughout the album as a whole) the lyrics don’t rise above rock cliché. It’s this simplicity, combined with a conceit of these “rogues” who make up the band that most rings false, that warns us however solid these songs, the whole exercise still smacks of marketing sheen.
What I’m saying, then, is that this really isn’t no-holds-barred rock; it’s a kind of market-driven cash-in. But these derivative songs grow on you, and as long as they bring the rock in the live setting, they’re worthy of the attention they will no doubt receive, due to their star singer. The extent to which this is taken up by the radio-listening public will predict the extent to which 2006 will be a ‘rock’ (rather than ‘80s revival’ or ‘dance rock’) flagship year.

One final thing: regardless of what you think of the band, be sure to check out their website. I won’t ruin it, except to say—ingenious.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the_raconteurs_broken_boy_soldiers/