The Detroit based supergroup The Raconteurs had a successful two album run in the late 00s, led by songwriters Brendan Benson and the famed vocalist and guitarist Jack White of The White Stripes. To the table, White brings his signature classic rock tinted garage stompers while the more melodically inclined Benson unearths hooks from the dense muddiness of The Raconteurs’ bluesy rock freak outs. As of late, White has been exploring the fringes of rock music, seeing just how far he can reinvent the idea of what rock music should sound like. His latest solo record, Boarding House Reach (2018), was a zany collection of experimental rock tunes released to mixed responses, some finding it an avant-garde masterpiece while many others saw it as overblown and pretentious.
The Raconteurs’ latest, Help Us Stranger, is a stark contrast to the sonic wackiness that was White’s latest solo effort. This band’s third studio album and their first in 11 years is a return to both Benson and White’s roots. While coated in a modern sheen, these guys tastefully go back in time to the glory days of garage rock raucousness. Often, they can be heard channeling the amped-up energy of blues-rock staples in Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
Opening track “Bored and Razed” is carried by The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”-like stabbing power chords. This driving garage rocker, seeping with grit and no-frills energy, also leans into power pop melodicism off the strength of Benson’s vocals. Next, “Help Me Stranger” opens with some acoustic strumming, leading the way into some deliciously groovy blues-rock. The tune carries a rich, sludgy tone and airtight harmonies.
“Only Child” also starts acoustically with pastoral, dream-like qualities. Drums slowly build into the mix, concluding with some heavily echoed guitar. The layers and the heaviness of the tune progressively build to a climax. This songcrafting format is not new. It’s almost a trope at this point. But The Raconteurs are not reinventing the wheel; they are simply taking rock’s most iconic ideas and executing them well.
“Don’t Bother Me” is a bit of a heavy-handed takedown on technology and cellphone culture. It might not be the most nuanced of White’s lyrics, but at least the music is engaging enough to look past that. Thrashing guitar riffs and head-spinning drum solos keeps things chaotic yet inventive. “Shine the Light on Me” goes in a more glam rock direction. This piano led swinger kicks off with some Freddie Mercury-esque operatic vocals.
“Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” has a country tinge running through it. White’s guitar cries heavy tears as it bends, much in the vein of Eric Clapton’s best tunes. Add in the weary vocals, and this could be passed off as the B-side to The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
“Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” is a cover of the iconic Scottish folk singer Donovan. However, and as all good covers should be, this is a complete reinvention of the tune. This one has ragged edges, carved out with shard snare rolls and harsh bass pedal courteous of drummer Patrick Keeler. Things are gruffed up even more with the addition of heavily distorted vocals.
“Sunday Driver” is an ear-splitting rocker with a furious groove carried by gritty guitar riffs, crashing drums, and Jack Lawrence’s pulsating bass. This is a catchy garage rock stomper. There is a certain mechanical, futuristic energy to this one that pushes into both directions of the musical timeline, borrowing from the past while looking to where music is headed.
“Now That You’ve Gone” is The Raconteurs at their most cavernous, for the most part. The intro eerily combines acoustic guitar, bass, and Mellotron flute. Dense echo and reverb darkens this one. However, it seamlessly shifts into a melodic chorus right out of Elton John’s playbook. Running into the chorus is some pleasant doo-wop vocal harmonisation.
“Live A Lie” is a fast and fluttering reinvention of classic melodic punk music. Mainstays like Blondie, The Undertones, and Buzzcocks can be heard blended into the DNA of this aggressively catchy tune.
“What’s Yours is Mine” is Jack White’s Led Zeppelin worship at its most pure. Take-no-prisoner blues riffs come out of every crevice of its slinky funk. They keep it interesting with a series of bizarre, left instrumental change-ups. In that way, this song might be the most resembling of White’s recent solo work.
The closing number, “Thoughts and Prayers”, is a majestic folk tune with a sense of longing from the vocals supported by mystical fingerpicking. The Raconteurs, while remaining cohesive, do a great job exploring a number of classic sounds to give the record a much welcome sense of variation.
The Raconteurs aren’t interested in changing rock music. The main thing holding this album back from being exceptional is its lack of exploration or fresh originality. Still, with their blatant nostalgia, The Raconteurs excel in their craft. Vibrant instrumentation, ass-kicking performances and occasionally solid songcraft result in a non-essential listen, but it is a fun one nevertheless.