Jack White is capable of inflicting more compelling strangeness than we get here.
Jack White never seems to go away. Whether you love or hate him will determine whether this is a good or bad thing, but if you’re a person who immerses themselves in the world of indie rock and the various pillars of rock journalism, White can seem ever-present. The release of a new Raconteurs album could be a cause célèbre on its own, but we’ve gotten enough regular doses of the idiosyncratic recording magnate, in his music and out – his bizarre album release techniques, his quiet feud with Black Keys frontperson Dan Auerbach, the fact that he’s allegedly never owned a cell phone—that you can easily lose sight of the fact that Help Us Stranger, their newest, is 11 years removed from Consolers of the Lonely, their last record. He’s put out three solo albums and three albums as Dead Weather in the years since, so you can’t say he hasn’t had his hands full since then.
White’s various bands each serve specific sonic and aesthetic purposes, from the scuzzy vibes of Dead Weather or the genre-defying nature of his solo material, present on his bloodless third solo LP, Boarding House Reach. The Raconteurs gives him the chance to play straight-up rock music like he did with the White Stripes, but with the limiters turned off. Even better, White’s sharing the spotlight with Brendan Benson, who plays an A.C. Newman-like foil to White’s Dan Bejar. Unsurprisingly the quartet—backed up by the Greenhornes’ rhythm section of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler—make good on its obvious goal to rock.
Help Us Stranger is plenty successful at being a capital-R Rock record, unpretentious and loaded with catchy riffs that few people working today that aren’t Jack White could write. Opener “Bored and Razed” is a sugar rush that’ll lodge itself in your brain with just a couple listens. No songs jump out at you like minor hits “Steady, As She Goes” and “Salute Your Solution” did, but there’s plenty to love: the meaty distortion of the shouty “Don’t Bother Me,” the piano-heavy Beatlesque “Shine the Light on Me,” even the heavy psych freak-out of “What’s Yours Is Mine.” It also saves the best song for last with the sarcastically-titled “Thoughts and Prayers,” as they present a “What happened to the world?” anthem for people who get sick of hearing Boomers complain about Kids These Days: “I used to look up at the sky/ Up at the beautiful blue sky/ But now the earth has turned to gray,” he sings as he cunningly avoids the lazy tropes common in this kind of song.
The success of Help as a meat-and-potatoes rock record is what keeps it from having the sticking power that Blunderbuss or Dead Weather’s Horehound did—or, or that matter, that the group’s first two albums did. If feels identity-less, which didn’t seem possible for someone as aesthetically-minded as White. Make no mistake, this is a solid record and a better one than Boarding House Reach, but I’ll take his failed attempts at something new over playing it safe. Even tight songs like “Thoughts and Prayers” or “Shine the Light on Me” are only ever good, but never quite interesting, keeping the album from leaving its mark. The one time it feels like they’re really stretching themselves is on Donovan cover “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness),” which may be seriously excellent but it makes you wonder why they don’t sound like they strived for that same energy on the rest of the album. The world is a different place now, and we’ve seen that White is capable of inflicting more compelling strangeness than we get here. Hearing him just make a rock record feels like a step backwards.