When it comes to the Raconteurs, don’t believe the hype: Their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, is much more than a Jack White vanity project – its exploratory collection of styles and narratives shows off a lot more than its most famous member’s talents.
Guitarists/songwriters Jack White and Brendan Benson teamed up with fellow Detroiters – Greenhornes bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler. Lawrence’s expansive bass bumps and Keeler’s flawless grooves add a cohesiveness that many White Stripes aficionados might not know they’re missing. But the ensemble’s effortless cohesion serves mostly to showcase the continuum of styles. Benson and White push and pull between each other’s strengths, coalescing thematic moods and sonic tropes.
Although the Raconteurs have a ways to go before their music can grow beyond what’s in Benson and White’s respective toolkits, this songwriting relationship shows promise. Although it’s by no means close in quality, their first release bears a striking parallel to the Beatles’s pre-masterwork masterwork Revolver. The relationship between the divergent styles of its primary songwriters act as the structural crux of the album – the product of the musical alchemy between the dark, brooding iconoclast and the sensitive songsmith brings out something more than either could do on his own.
That said, its single – “Steady, As She Goes” – might not have been the best choice to convey that all-for-one feel that the band (White in particular) has stressed in interviews. But it’s impossible to approach Broken Boy Soldiers without our knowledge of White and Benson’s past songwriting acting as a benchmark for their performance.
A great deal of the Raconteurs’s appeal lies in their ability to intrigue listeners with their mercurial shifts in mood and texture. The tracks on Broken Boy Soldiers range from White’s trademark cathartic crashes to Benson’s Beatles-esque harmonies and delicate, muted keyboards that inject shots of energy between darker, aggressive tone and production. Rather than sounding disjunct, this lineup highlights the contrasts that show up on this stylistic continuum.
But all songs are credited “Benson/White” (another Lennon/McCartney parallel), and Benson’s are some of the most intriguing tracks on Broken Boy Soldiers. The melancholy simplicity of “Together” and “Hands” parallel Paul McCartney’s sweetly romantic contributions to Revolver; add horns and boost the tempo of “Yellow Sun” and the comparison goes one step further. The bright, smooth harmonies, one suspects, are also primarily Benson’s doing, although White’s anxious tone clusters still show up. The odd bit about this pairing is that White’s hoarse, sometimes shrill singing voice doesn’t exactly fade anonymously into the background on tracks where Benson’s charming tenor takes the lead.
One thing Benson, White, Lawrence and Keeler have in common, apart from their D-town origins, is the simple structures in which they work – complex emotions conveyed in couplets over 4/4 time. They keep that simple structure and binary love-song theme, but one gets the feeling that they’re dealing with more grown-up issues here. “Intimate Secretary” sneers at privilege (“I’ve got a girl and she likes to shop / The other foot looks like it won’t drop”), and “Call It a Day” quietly acknowledges that some relationships are beyond saving.
White’s recent experimentation on Get Behind Me Satan has shown his potential as a budding musical auteur, and the Raconteurs’s melding of differing personas works to show White’s promise for future projects. But the album’s closer, the diabolical-yet-seductive blues dirge “Blue Veins,” doesn’t show a compromise of vision or a reliance on old tropes. White has already proven himself as one of the most dynamic, innovative songwriters of the last decade, but this new group has the ability make its own unique mark.
The primary difficulty with Broken Boy Soldiers lies in the fact that, for all the years of preparatory jamming, the album doesn’t sound like anything close to the best this group could turn out. While the band is built around the idea of friends playing music together, the Raconteurs might benefit from a more formal vision of their sound and thematic concepts. But whatever they do next, Broken Boy Soldiers has set the bar pretty high.
Broken Boy Soldiers