Not since Dustin Hoffman and Michael Jackson appeared in the early years of The Simpsons has an attempt at anonymity received so much attention. Those two celebrities could not hide the obvious distinction of their voices in the animated show, and nor can Jack White hide his obvious visage in a `supergroup.’ But the debut album from the Raconteurs, featuring White, singer / songwriter Brendan Benson, and Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, the rhythm section from the Greenhornes, is anything but a White Stripes side project. The musicians intended for the Raconteurs to be a bona fide group, not as a way to pass the time. White and Benson began writing together on a whim and thus, accidentally, was born the band that would see Jack leaving Meg (again, but not permanently) and Benson recognized for the blazing talent he is.
White calls Keeler and Lawrence the `best rhythm section in the business’ and from hearing the two kick off “Steady as She Goes,” I’m not inclined to argue. The opening seconds of an album can make or break it and create a powerful statement. Elvis Costello chose to open each of his first three albums with his voice, unaccompanied, before the music kicked in. The Raconteurs chose to open with a steady drumbeat joined by a groovy bassline. A jagged guitar crashes in along with a ’60s tinged voice and the magic is complete. We know at once it’s not the White Stripes, and we don’t care. Excuse the pedantic simplicity, but this is fuckin’ cool. The song, and part of the rest of the album, is so influenced by the British Invasion that Benson even puts emphasis on the word, `kink.’ “Hands” is pure later Beatles’ Lennon works. One listen to the harmonics and the bridge of `oooh’s’ will convince you that this is no mere side project.
Jack White and his new wife, Karen, just gave birth to a baby girl, Scarlett, but one gets the sense that he is just as proud of this album as he is his daughter and wife. He happily takes a back seat (or at least shotgun), to ensure the band dynamic. He and Benson find verdant middle ground on the album, White becoming less abrasive and Benson becoming more muscular. The result becomes songs like “Broken Boy Soldier” with its Zeppelin meets George Harrison eastern influenced trippiness, and “Intimate Secretary,” a song that sounds as if the Beatles were singing harmony over a Sabbath tune. “Level” features a give and take, pass the baton, I can do anything you can do, better feel to it with White and Benson trading lines at the end. Amazingly enough, because I love Benson’s work and haven’t been a huge White Stripes fan, I thought White’s delivery had something Benson’s was lacking, flash.
Not every song on Broken Boy Soldiers is a masterpiece, but more than enough come pretty darn close to make this an album worth having. The album’s cover makes me think of what the band members would look like if press clippings and reviews had real life physical manifestations as many have been beating up the Raconteurs for not being the next White Stripes record. Despite White’s warnings about this being an entirely new band to judge on its own merits, some critics fail to recognize anything but White’s presence. I have been more than pleasantly surprised by the debut from the Raconteurs. In fact, color me impressed. I’ve always found the Stripes to be half music and half shtick, and the Greenhornes barely made the public radar. As stated earlier, Benson is a favorite of mine, but the collaboration made Benson’s work into something more than I could have dreamed it could be, a mix of psychedelia, early metal riffs, and British Invasion harmonies, all given the Andro treatment. Unfortunately, the Raconteurs’ fate is probably going to end up similar to that of another Detroit group, D12, as Eminem tried to hide himself amongst a collective of rappers just as Jack White is with this collective. It’s not that the Raconteurs are not good enough, as I’ve just written about, indeed they are, but people just aren’t willing to let go of the past, especially when it pertains to celebrity.
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