'Help Us Stranger' Is a Rousing, Welcome Return for the Raconteurs
On their first album in more than ten years, Jack White's acclaimed foursome the Raconteurs are back with a solid collection of songs.
Help Us Stranger
21 June 2019
The next time your cranky, baby boomer uncle bitches about the lack of good rock music being made these days, you can throw him a copy of Help Us Stranger and he'll probably shut up. The Raconteurs – the long-dormant side project of Jack White, Brendan Benson, Patrick Keeler, and Jack Lawrence – last released an album in 2008 with (Consolers of the Lonely), and their latest album essentially continues along the same bluesy, garage-rock path. It's an opportunity for the ever-prolific White – whose most recent solo album, Boarding House Reach, was a psychotic if polarizing, masterpiece – to rein in some of his more outlandish tendencies and participate in a more meat-and-potatoes rock venture.
That isn't to minimize the artistic feats of Help Us Stranger (which, as of this writing, is the number-one album in the United States). The Raconteurs have found the sweet spot between quality songwriting and tight musicianship, and both the blustering boogie and longing ballads present throughout the album shouldn't be considered empty-headed guilty pleasures. Opening track "Bored and Razed" veers between simmering, almost jazzy blues runs and frenetic riffing. "California bored and razed," Benson croons in the chorus, providing a sweet antidote to White's gruff verses.
The minor-key acoustic folk of "Only Child" allows the Raconteurs to straddle the line between 1970s folk and blues-tinged Led Zeppelin worship (as usual, White's stinging guitar leads provide the appropriate edge). And it says a lot about the band when they're able to transition seamlessly from that into the breathless punk shuffle of "Don't Bother Me", complete with accusatory lyrics ("Your hidden agenda / You ruthless rule bender / Your surface duplicity / It's all nothing new to me"). When they cede to outside songwriting, the vibe remains edgy, electric and unique. The album's one cover, "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)" was a 1965 Donovan b-side, but the original tune's syncopated shuffle is right in the Raconteurs' wheelhouse, with a little extra speed and amplification to ease it into the album's overall mood.
Elsewhere, the glam strut of "Sunday Driver" and "What's Yours Is Mine" provide plenty of potent riffs, particularly for anyone who may have felt slighted by the overly experimental nature of Boarding House Reach (although "Sunday Driver" has a lovely, psychedelic middle section that prevents the song from wallowing in classic rock posturing). "Shine the Light on Me" allows the band to stretch their baroque power ballad muscles with enough angelic harmonies and graceful piano chords to suggest that White and Benson have mid-1970s Queen on heavy rotation.
Amid all the garage riffs and classic rock tropes, Help Us Stranger reminds us that the Raconteurs are, after all, a Nashville-based band with a healthy appetite for twang. "Somedays (I Don't Feel Like Trying)" is a heartfelt country ballad beefed up with power chords to produce what can best be described as alt-country Lynyrd Skynyrd. That eclectic spirit is given an even bigger boost in the song's surprising final movement, a country-fried coda with the lines "I'm here right now / I'm not dead yet" repeated by White and Benson not just a tacked-on chorus, but something of a mantra.
With only three full-length albums released in a span of 13 years, it's a shame that the Raconteurs' output is so stingy (although it's understandable, considering the multitude of projects its collective members take on at any given moment). But albums like Help Us Stranger – which are infused with an almost effortless range – remind us that this is a band with a multitude of gifts. Not dead yet, indeed.
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