2019 has been a surprisingly strong year for guitar-oriented rock music. You wouldn’t know it from the Billboard Top 100 which remains fully committed to trap, hip hop, and EDM-based pop, as it requires a bit more digging to get to rock, but for those who put in the effort, the music is there.
I don’t expect that the reunion of the band The Raconteurs will catapult them magically to the top of the lists either, but it wouldn’t be for a lack of quality. The band’s new album, Help Us Stranger, is just a rock album, which is kind of a wonderful thing. You’re correct – there are blues-infused moments and folk-Americana asides – but the dominant tendency on the record is to stomp that box and rage through a breezy 12-song collection. I can already envision the hip crowd sniffling about how 2000-late this all is and that Jack White (vocals, guitar), Brendan Benson (vocals, guitar), Jack Lawrence (bass guitar), and Patrick Keeler (drums) are the second coming of “Dad rock.”
But you like your dad’s albums, right? And maybe, your dad might like this.
There aren’t a bunch of unnecessary frills or electronics shoehorned in. “Don’t Bother Me,” “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” “Sunday Driver,” and the mournful closer “Thoughts and Prayers” have hooks that burrow deep. “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” is a cover of a Donovan deep track, with the faint whiff of psychedelia swirling about it.
Help Us Stranger doesn’t sound like the natural successor to 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely, a record that went much deeper into the Americana vibe, but in an odd sense does sound like what you’d have imagined to be the follow-up. It would have been an about-face, as this record hews more to the 2006 debut Broken Boy Soldiers. This is a big positive for listeners who expect a Jack White-involved project to retain that Detroit swagger and were, perhaps, put off by Consolers’ aesthetic.
This is where the territory gets dangerous, however. The reason why I like The Raconteurs so much more than anything else White’s been involved with is that he’s an element of the band, not the dominant force. His direct partnership with Benson is evident and clear, and in many cases, it is Benson’s contributions that shine brightest. Lawrence and Keeler are a dynamic rhythm section and provide a solid, speaker-thumping foundation. Now, as then, if you are looking for the “New Jack White Album,” this ain’t it, and you will be disappointed by how collaborative it all sounds.
It has to be said: I don’t hold a lot of hope that this is a permanent reunion. Getting The Raconteurs back together sounds like a good and obvious bet, one that will move some records and sell many tickets. It’s a formula that briefly brought back together Ben Folds Five and Faith No More, and when the job got done, all parties drifted off in separate directions again. I’d like to think this is different, but something seems awfully familiar about this strategy. If all that comes from it is Help Us Stranger as a by-product, honestly, that’s not a bad thing.