A fat bloke in a record shop once said “….is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins? “Is it better to burn out than to fade away?”. The irony being these words were spoken by a man spouting lyrical about the virtues of this record “Its a scorcher, its a sizzler, its a barn burner” says Jack Black. Well I wouldn’t go that far.
He is of course describing the new The Raconteurs record, Help Us Stranger.
There’s been an 11 year hiatus since Consolers of the Lonely and in that time we’ve haven’t heard a peep out of Jack White have we? He’s been very quiet. He really should start doing some solo stuff, or form a new band or two. Jeez.
It is an indisputable fact that Jack White and Co, when they get together, stick on their gingham shirts and faded faux old band t shirts and live firmly in the period 1966 to 76.
Opener ‘Born and Raised’ is promising. It has the vocals, guitar sound and hook from The Beatles ‘I Want To Tell You’, with lots of vim and vigour. It’s no ‘Steady As She Goes’ but it has the same spirit as the big singles from the debut.
There follows a strange interlude where it seems they recorded the track over an old White Stripes tape and there’s Jack sounding like he playing himself through an old gramophone, which then sticks and the almost title track barrels in. Help Me Stranger doesn’t keep the fire burning unfortunately. If anything it’s a bit of a damp squib. A bucket of water on the hay that’s started to flame in aforementioned barn. Lyrics are hackneyed and rushed.
They reappeared out of the blue in late 2018 on social media and then a double A-Side, ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Sunday Driver’ appeared in December. The latter is exactly where The Raconteurs thrive. Hi tempo, crunching guitars and White at his screechy best, aided by balanced Brendon Benson backing vocals. Less said about some of words the better but it’s never been a strong point. Jack White is a master musician which he channels in his own way, which is mainly Blues inflected Rock’n’Roll, mixed with Folk, Country and latterly a strange experimental R’n’B (in the modern sense).
This rears it’s head from time to time across the record in the form of the Jack White that wrote ‘Connected by Love’ on his extremely out-there last solo LP, Boarding House Reach.
‘Don’t Bother Me’ is an angry rant at social media “clicking and swiping” with slightly clunky “don’t bother me, bother me” repeating refrain before melting into a gigantic Sabbath riff.
‘Shine Your Light On Me’ had been listening to Queen before recording and is a welcome light relief in a world of strutting rock pomp. Well, not the Freddie Mercury kind anyway.
‘Live a Lie’ is a garage rock stomper from the Brendan Benson library which is a bit of a departure for The Raconteurs. Mr Jack White is all over this record, as you might expect but sometimes it just feels like this is another solo record with a plethora of support, so when he let’s one of them loose to stamp a bit of their personality over proceedings it comes as a welcome change of pace.
‘What’s Yours Is Mine’ is just very uninteresting. From the riff to the melody it plods like a drunk staggering back from the pub.
They leave the most diverse and beautiful song till last. ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ is all acoustic guitars, plucked mandolin and gentle violin. A folk song akin to Get Behind Me Satan era White Stripes and its comfortably the best song on the record. Which is always a pleasant surprise when last songs are so often throw away efforts these days.
To coin a hugely over used phrase, as you walk the well trodden path to the massive neon lit cliché, The Raconteurs were never going to reinvent the wheel.
But maybe, sometimes, they could add some alloys, a nice hubcap, maybe some spokeys (ask your Mum or Dad, kids. Or maybe even grandparents).
They do what they do very well at points on Help Us Stranger, you just get the feeling they could have taken their time and shed some of the filler.
So it’s not exactly a confessionable offence. Three hail Mary’s and a few more killers. He’s not burning up or burning out.
Help Us, Stranger is out now on XL.