“I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet…” – “Some Days I Don’t Feel Like Trying,” The Raconteurs
The new millennium saw a lot of changes occur in the world, well after we all shook off those Y2K fears. For me personally, I met the Rock Chick in 2000 which changed everything. The 90s had seen the rise and fall of Grunge, which I really liked. Grunge was really classic rock (Pearl Jam), punk (Nirvana) or hard rock (or metal in the case of Soundgarden) dressed in flannel, so naturally I gravitated toward it. It was better than all the synth, spandex and drum machine stuff that came out in the 80s, although my friend Doug would argue with me on that. But by the end of the last century Grunge had punched itself out, metaphorically speaking. Cobain sadly took his own life. By 1999-2000 Layne Staley had largely disappeared into heroin addiction. Soundgarden broke up after Down On the Upside. Only Pearl Jam was left standing, unscathed…revolving drummers aside. The music that had taken the world by storm had settled into an uneasy middle age.
Sadly with rock bands receding, the end of the 90s saw the rise of pop music to fill the void. Diva behemoths Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera and their ilk ruled the world. Everywhere you turned you’d hear the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync or some other boy band… or was it N’Street and BackSyncBoys? I don’t know, I could never keep that shit straight. On my first date with the Rock Chick, I veered the conversation (as I usually do) toward music… you can’t be with someone with shitty musical taste, it’s against the laws of nature. I once broke up with a lovely woman because she liked Barry Manilow. On our first date the Rock Chick said, “I don’t know what’s up with music these days, all these crappy Boy Bands… whatever happened to Motley Crue or Van Halen or the Cult…” I think it was at that moment I may have fallen in love, but enough about me.
In the midst of all that awful pop music, starting around ’99 and running through ’02 there was a wave of these garage-rock type bands. Everywhere I turned I’d hear about this rock and roll revival. I was checking out bands like the Strokes or the Hives. I remember hearing about the White Stripes before I actually heard them. Finally the Rock Chick played “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With a Girl” for me. I couldn’t help but think, hmmm, that’s interesting. I remember the first time I saw them – not in concert, but on television – on the 2002 MTV Awards. All decked out in red and white. Jack White, manic on guitar/vocals with Meg White on drums (she was such a cavewoman on drums… love her). It was that moment the White Stripes clicked for me. I purchased White Blood Cells immediately.
I was so enamored with the White Stripes after that first purchase I did what I always do, I bought the entire back catalog… which at the time was only The White Stripes and my all time favorite Stripes record, De Stijl (a name which I’d venture to guess I’ve never pronounced correctly). They were garage rock and punk but there was blues in there too. They could go acoustic, which bands weren’t really doing any more, and be almost folky. I knew I’d found a band to connect to in this new wave of garage rockers. I thought then and continue to think, that Jack White is a genius. And of course knowing that he’s skilled in upholstering tends to help play into that.
I saw the White Stripes on the tour for their brilliant album Elephant in tiny Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas and it remains an all-time concert highlight for me. I was able to catch them again after the tour for Get Behind Me Satan at the Starlight Theater from the 6th row… and was thrilled they played “Jolene.” At this point, I was ready to build a shrine to the White Stripes in my backyard… Meg holding a fawn, Jack playing the guitar, both in togas, the whole Greek God treatment. But alas, things were not all smiles and roses in the White Stripes camp. Meg had started to distant herself from the big top.
With a bunch of pent up energy and no White Stripes project to work on, in 2006 Jack formed the Raconteurs with Brendan Benson (guitars/vocals), Jack Lawrence (bass), and Patrick Keeler (drums). I was excited to hear Jack White in a bigger band than the power duo he’d been playing with. There were more options for him. At the time vinyl was in short supply so I bought their debut album, Broken Boy Soldiers on CD. Alas, I ended up selling it. I loved “Steady As She Goes,” and the blues tune “Blue Veins,” but other than the song “Level” I didn’t really connect with the rest of the tracks on the album, it was too pop for me. It seemed somewhat slight in terms of the material. In prep for this post I went back and listened to it again… and it was a lot better than I remembered. It’s a solid record with three outstanding tracks in the mix.
In 2008, stuck waiting for Meg to do something in the studio after Icky Thump, White reconvened the Raconteurs for the sprawling Consolers Of The Lonely. I thought that record was flawed – I really liked about half the tracks on it – but it was a big leap forward from the debut record. They throw everything but the kitchen sink into this thing. It’s the exact album I thought Jack White would make outside the confines of the duo. I began to believe that the reason I liked only half the tracks was because I only like the Jack songs vs the Brendan songs but I think it’s more complicated than that. Jack is all id, he sounds unhinged at times. Then Brendan is like the superego, smoothly coming in and calming Jack into a nice harmonizing duo. When it worked it was spectacular. When it doesn’t, well it doesn’t.
Flash forward ten years from Consolers and I thought the Raconteurs were a footnote. Once the White Stripes officially “called it a day,” Jack launched a strong solo career. His first two albums are brilliant, Blunderbuss and Lazaretto are highly recommended. Unfortunately his last album, Boarding House Reach lost me (LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’). I think we all know someone or work with someone who is so creative, whose approach to things is so out there, you just want to say to them once in a while, “think inside the box for a change.” That’s kind of where I think Jack White got to. It was time to return to the structure of a band instead of the free reign being a solo artist can bring. Enter his old pals, the Raconteurs.
I was really pleased when I put Help Us Stranger on the stereo and turned up the speakers. The first track is all garage rock guitars, building to a big opening track, “Bored and Razed.” This album feels tighter than Consolers, its as compact as Broken Boy but it packs more punch. And, as a vinyl enthusiast I must say I love that they put a fake needle skip at the front of the title track, just to fuck with us. The title track has an acoustic guitar riff punctuated with White’s lead guitar. I love the Benson/White harmonizing. “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” is another epic track with a long coda, quoted above. These guys are definitely not dead yet. “Only Child” is a great acoustic ballad also featuring the great harmonizing.
My favorite tracks remain the first two released, “Sunday Driver” is a track that runs through my brain multiple times a day and the epic blues of “Now That You’re Gone.” The Raconteurs are always good for one fabulous blues track. (Review: The Raconteurs’ Great New Single, Jack White’s Original Side Project Delivers!). “Shine the Light on Me” starts with an almost gospel piano and has a Beatlesque chorus. It’s really grown on me.
The album is not without some tracks that I didn’t connect with. “Don’t Bother Me” never quite comes together. “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” is a Donovan cover complete with harmonica crunchy guitar and distorted vocals. I’ll admit the Raconteurs version is probably better than anything Donovan ever did… I know, I just don’t dig him but it’s a bit unhinged. Neither of these songs are bad, the band needs to let White to go off occasionally.
Overall I’d say this is the Raconteurs’ strongest complete album. It’s a great bookend with the Black Keys latest effort LP Review: The Black Keys Return With “Let’s Rock” – Yes, Indeed! to help book end your summer rock and roll. It’s all guitars and harmonies, many of which will bore into your brain. Just when I was worried rock was dead, another super rock record comes out. If nothing else, it’s great to hear Jack White get back to his usual top shelf form. “Not dead yet,” indeed!