Get thee to CMT
Aren’t superstar side-projects usually devoted to exploring the weird, indulgent stuff that don’t quite fit with the star’s regular assignment? The weirdest thing about the Raconteurs, Jack White’s non-Stripes band, is now non-weird they are. White gets away with a whole lot in his main band: discordant feedback-drenched guitar flare-ups, bluegrass half-jokes, mariachi-band monster-jams, a defiantly silly brother-sister mythology that nobody believes anymore. And so maybe the Raconteurs exist so that White can vent his most conventional impulses: choogling Midwestern bar-rock grooves, fleshed-out instrumentation, earth-tone clothes. White stubbornly insists on sharing frontman duties with Brendan Benson, and I’m not sure I could pick that guy’s voice out of a lineup. The whole thing is a bit puzzling. If White can fill up Madison Square Garden almost singlehandedly with his ecstatic knife-edge guitar-hero hysteria, why would he bother releasing a couple of albums’ worth of throughly competent classic-rock pastiche? With Consolers of the Lonely, the new Raconteurs album, White’s pulled off a neat and innovative trick, but it’s one that has nothing to do with the music. The band only announced the existence of a new album last Wednesday, claiming that it’d be available for purchase within less than a week, doing away completely with the months-long hype-cycle manipulation that comes along with every album these days. The album’s out today, and I’m just now hearing it for the first time along with everyone else. (So yeah, I’m writing this on just a couple of listens. That’ll probably also be true of any print reviews you see of this album in the next couple of weeks; that’s how lead-times work.)
I like the immediacy of White’s little quick-release stunt, and I kind of wish other groups would adapt that same approach. If nothing else, it’d cure the music business of its unhealthy fixation on first-week sales, and it would end the depressing reality that many of us are sick of new albums by the time they actually hit stores. (Gnarls Barkley, a weirdly goofy side-project that suddenly and paradoxically became its members’ primary outlet when “Crazy” happened, tried the same thing days later, rushing sophomore album The Odd Couple into stores way ahead of time even though it’d already leaked.) That’s a truly ballsy move on White’s part, and I only wish the actual music on Consolers took comparable risks more often. As a band, the Raconteurs do a whole lot of the little things right. Their records are light on the insane compression that renders so many major-label rock records near-unlistenable. The band can confidently keep a beat and even switch up time-signatures seamlessly. Small touches like tambourines and pick-slides always help out the songs in almost intangible ways. But this is decidedly unambitious stuff. The best thing about the Raconteurs is still White’s electric yelp. Without him, they’d be a pretty good Kemado Records retro-rawk band, better than Wolfmother but not as good as Black Mountain. (Actually, they’re still not as good as Black Mountain.)
There’s only one straight-up bad song on Consolers, the turgid Benson-sung attempted-Styx lurch “Many Shades of Black.” But the album has plenty of just-OK tracks; the second half is full of garage-rock rave-ups that could pass for Rocket From the Crypt B-sides. For most of its running time, though, this is a fun record. “Hold Up” builds a slippery, darting rant on a drunken mob-chant. “The Switch and the Spur” finds room for spaghetti-western trumpets and indulges in some lyrical power-metal kitsch: “Any poor souls who trespass against us, whether it be beast or man / Will suffer the fight or get stung dead on sight by those who inhabit this land,” that sort of thing. Benson’s lead vocals don’t amount to much, but he makes a soaring harmonic counterpoint to White, almost as good a foil as White’s own multitracked vocals on White Stripes records. And I guess that’s the problem here; I can’t hear most of these songs without imagining them as White Stripes songs, thinking how much fiercer and immediate they’d sound with that band’s starker setup. Most of the songs here don’t seem to be written specifically for a full band, and all the extra guitars just clutter up the arrangements as often as not.
The album only has a few really great moments, and those come when the band leaps into unexplored territory. “You Don’t Understand Me” is a nicely hushed and biting power-ballad, and “Carolina Drama” is a slow-build Americana dirge with a narrative that starts out gripping and turns absurdist. But my favorite song by a few orders of magnitude is “Old Enough,” a deeply satisfying fiddle-and-organ throwdown. It’s the sort of cleaned-up Southern rock that generally finds love these days on country radio, and if White tries, maybe he can ride it back onto CMT, where his work on that Loretta Lynn album once turned him into a light-rotation anomaly. If he ever gets too sick of Meg to go on with his main band, I hope White leaves this bar-rock thing alone and replaces Kid Rock as Nashville’s pet rebel-rocker type; he’s got that shit down.