Help Us Stranger
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After a long eleven year silence, The Raconteurs did the right thing and opened their new, third full-length Help Us Stranger with the force of “Bored and Razed.” A slow solo guitar climbs its way to a cymbal crash and a unison downbeat pulls us towards the top. And there it is. The familiar sound of Jack White’s twisted guitar. The way White wraps his fingers around the frets always feels like he’s playing every note all at once. Brendan Benson joins White on lead vocals for the opener reminding us this band is fronted by two familiar songwriters. Or as White said to Billboard recently, “I’m only 25% of the band. We’re all doing something together, and that feels really good.”
The Raconteurs are arguably the most memorable supergroup of the early 2000s. Even though they only released two records—2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers and 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely—they had top ten hits and won a GRAMMY awards (with a few other nominations). We weren’t sure if we’d ever have another record from them until last fall when it was announced that new music was on its way. And by December, two new Raconteurs songs were released with a Third Man Records reissue of Consolers of the Lonely.
Since the initial announcement back in October, singles have been trickling out. It started with “Sunday Driver” and “Now That You’re Gone.” Then it was “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” a Donovan cover in April, the title track “Help Me Stranger” in May, and “Bored and Razed” in early June. Help Us Stranger was officially released on June 21st but their singles have been regular stays on member supported local radio here in New York City (and, I assume, elsewhere on alternative and college radio stations).
The singles are tight and give me everything I want from the band, but I wonder if the project would have served fans better as an EP rather than an LP with lots of filler (like “Only Child” and “What’s Yours Is Mine”).
When “Sunday Driver” came out I was excited by its volume, the multilayered guitar hook, and the unmistakable “WOAH” erupting from Jack White’s lips. The lyrics are simple and formulaic—a regular trick employed by White across all his records, solo or not—allowing the instruments to do the actual talking.
“Now That You’re Gone” is slower and holds its own with hooks, grungy guitar licks, and singalongs. Benson’s vocals are in the forefront, claiming the track as pop territory. For The Raconteurs, he’s always been White’s pop rock balance. White and Benson’s guitars sing together on the album just as often as they share lead, which is for eleven of the dozen tracks. The left and right channels on “Gone” call and respond to each other like a tug between two lovers, not sure what to do with the empty space the other left behind.
The title track “Help Me Stranger” starts out with a lo-fi crackle that skips until they deliver one of the album’s best. Released as a standalone single, it might be the finest example of Benson and White working together as performers. The percussion works like a cha-cha and it’s a fantastic title piece.
The new music landscape is rarely a four piece, guitar fronted rock and roll band. But that’s what The Raconteurs do and they’re fully aware of that. They wanted to make something they wanted to hear, to buy. It started when White went to hear a new song Benson wrote, he was struggling for lyrics, and White filled in the blanks. You can hear Benson’s voice front and center on “Shine The Light On Me.” The song almost ended up on White’s Boarding House Reach, his third solo LP released last year to a collective head scratching. Instead it wound up here, sounding like something else I can’t quite put my finger on.
The singles are great but the remaining tracks sound a lot like afterthoughts thrown together and are ultimately disappointing. Yes, the album is glossy and well made, but the lyrics often come across as vapid, generic lines about love and life. Worse off, the songs feel tone deaf at times.
On “Bored and Razed,” they’re “staying away from the left and the right.” The list of things not to be bothered with on “Don’t Bother Me” includes “your political science.” “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” is apathetic and in the end repeats itself and goes nowhere.
The opening line of “Live a Lie” is irritating: “I like it better when you tell me lies” and the chorus “I just wanna live a lie with you” is unsavory. Right now it’s hard to decipher the truth and being lied to is the last thing I want to chant along to.
Closing track “Thoughts and Prayers” is not satire, ironic, or a political call to action. It’s a near five minute, slow churning, quiet folk song that turns out to be boring and skippable. The last lines “To talk to God and hear her say / There are reasons why it is this way” do not fill me with hope, but rather with the same annoyed anger every time another person in power delivers their thoughts and prayers.
Clearly, White, Benson, Lawrence, and Keeler can perform as a tight band, but after a decade of their absence I was expecting so much more. The letdown feels so low. The LP seems to be rattling around in its own time capsule after so much has happened in the world and in rock music since 2008.
Help Us Stranger lacks the creative uniqueness compared to their last. White and the boys were right about rock music being low on the totem pole and it makes me question, just because you can make a rock & roll record, should you?
Notable Tracks: "Bored and Razed" | “Help Me Stranger” | "Sunday Driver"