The Raconteurs’ new album, Help Us Stranger, straddles a surprisingly thin line between sincerity and pretense, eclecticism and appropriation, hipness and banality. Opening track “Bored and Razed” features Patrick Keeler’s adventurous/Keith Moon-inspired drums and Jack Lawrence’s bouncy bass, the song bookended by ringing guitars reminiscent of Pete Townshend’s windmill chords on “Pinball Wizard.” The title song blends accessibility and pseudo-intellectual quirkiness: “There’s a motivation about you / that moves me when we’re apart / it agitates my affection / and it wants to break my heart.” Jack White’s and Brendon Benson’s alternately amphetamine and lilting vocals are punctuated by White’s cranky guitar, a clever fusion of Cream, The Yardbirds, and Zeppelin: a winsome — albeit predictable — pastiche of classic rock and indie swagger.
“Only Child” is an acoustic-driven tribute to the “sensitive soul” who struggles to find their place in a consumeristic world. “Don’t Bother Me” is a ’70s-infused grab-bag, replete with an intriguing mid-song leap from a Thin Lizzy-on-steroids intro to a “Living Loving Maid”-esque guitar riff and improv-y solo, the piece taking on a cobbled-together feel, a hodgepodge tip-of-the-hat to formative hard rock and NWOBHM groups. Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” is a cool cover selection, though The Raconteurs’ version fails to compellingly reinterpret the still-fresh 1965 original, a proto-meld of folk, blues, and rock elements, Donovan’s vocal paradoxically composed and rife with tension.
Which perhaps highlights my struggle with The Raconteurs: Though gifted with encyclopedic knowledge of rock’s primary and ancillary sources (genres, subgenres, etc.) and a knack for recontextualizing them in resourceful ways, there’s a one-dimensionality to many of their tunes, a leave-nothing-on-the-table approach that ultimately leaves nothing to the listener’s imagination. In contrast, The Dead Weather strikes me as White’s most alluring incarnation, with its moody, after-party/stoner vibe and prom-queen-cum-junkie vocals courtesy of Alison Mosshart, who effortlessly moves from one pole to another — melancholy to rage, self-doubt to savagery, restraint to catharsis. With The Raconteurs, on the other hand, there’s an energetic redundancy; regardless of tempo or content, each tune seems prompted by the same aesthetic, emotional, and musical impulses.
“Sunday Driver,” on first listen, is melodically, structurally, and instrumentally commendable; and yet, the song as a gestalt grows tedious. “Now That You’re Gone” exudes an over-the-top-ness that, in theatrical terms, would be dubbed hamming. The album’s closer, “Thoughts and Prayers,” is the set’s most distinct and sophisticated track, Lillie Mae Rische’s violin and Scarlett Rische’s mandolin offering a refreshing shift, an alt-country-inflected jam at times reminiscent of Punch Brothers.
Drawing from and reconfiguring sonic and thematic elements integral to the rock canon, The Raconteurs scissor and splice like veteran collagists. That said, I’ve never been enamored with the way in which they cull, treat, and hybridize their sources. In addition, Help Us Stranger, exuding a tiring slickness, would benefit from the sloppy-mod and live or at least faux-live production values used on The Dead Weather projects. Help Us Stranger, like 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers and 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely, offers its high points; however, the project too frequently occurs as formulaic, lapsing into blandness.