Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Raconteurs, ‘Consolers of the Lonely’

When The Raconteurs’ first album came out back in 2006, it sounded like a collection of tracks recorded on a lark in somebody’s garage. Which, of course, it actually was. Despite hype to the contrary about Jack White’s new endeavor with friend and fellow singer/songwriter Brendan Benson not being “just a side project,” that’s exactly what most of “Broken Boy Soldiers” sounded like, with rare exceptions (“Blue Veins”).

This is not to say “Soldiers” was a subpar effort; even these guys’ knock-offs are first rate. But their initial album meandered to the point it lacked a signature sound and focus, as if White and Benson tried too hard not to assert their influence over the other, adding up to a collection that was less than the sum of its parts.

All this has changed for the better on the Raconteurs’ new album, “Consolers of the Lonely,” released last month. This is what I was hoping for two years ago, a perfect fusion between White’s raw rock-and-blues power and Benson’s sublime pop/rock sensibilities. It’s focused, strong, and unabashed, thundering along with purpose and confidence.

We hear this right from the first track, “Consoler of the Lonely,” which starts with a loud, crunching guitar and sees the two leads deftly trade verses. As each enters the fray, the tempo and style change, almost like two different songs have been sewn together seamlessly. This isn’t even one of the five best songs on this album, and I would argue it’s still more exciting than anything on “Broken Boy Soldiers.” That’s how strong this record is.

From there it’s off and running through 50 glorious minutes of the most adventurous rock and roll you’re likely to hear this year. White offers up several rave-ups scattered throughout the album’s 14 tracks, including the breakneck lead single “Salute Your Solution,” the thrashing “Five on the Five,” and standout “Hold Up,” where Jack addresses both his throwback ideals and the love of a good woman.

Benson, meanwhile, does some of his best work on the album’s fourth cut, “Old Enough.” For the first few bars it sounds little different than one of the gems from his 2005 solo effort “Alternative to Love”—and then the fiddle and organ come flying into the scene and the song veers into some kind of ethereal, off-kilter country realm.

Benson has other highlights on the record, too (“Many Shades of Black,” for instance), but perhaps his greatest contribution is one of humility. It’s an obvious sign of White and Benson’s friendship that the latter is able this time around to let White take his rightful place as the band's leader. Nothing against Benson, certainly, but Jack White is one of the seminal artists of this decade. Besides basically singlehandedly making guitar heroics relevant for a new generation through his signature band, The White Stripes, have we already forgotten his contributions to 2003’s “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, or how he resuscitated Loretta Lynn’s career in 2004? So the fact that “Consolers of the Lonely” contains some of the best work of his life makes this album all the more remarkable—and essential.

I’m speaking specifically of three songs here, three essential cuts that stand up—and come downright close to surpassing—anything White has written to this point. “Top Yourself” is a country/blues epic, complete with what sounds like banjo plucking deep in the background and a sinewy electric riff that would sound just right on the Stripes’ “De Stijl” from 2000. It’s a cousin both musically and thematically to “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)” from the most recent Stripes album, last year’s “Icky Thump.” Here White engages in tough love once again by imploring a woman to stand up for herself and break free of a bad relationship.

Next is “These Stones Will Shout,” the album’s penultimate track that serves as the Raconteurs’ version of Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The song starts soft but fervent on dueling acoustic guitars before calling down the hammer of the gods and exploding into classic-rock heaven.

And then there’s album-closer “Carolina Drama,” a twisty, wordy tale of a broken home and a son’s bloody, drunken quest for vengeance. In other words, here’s White’s take on one of his heroes, Bob Dylan.

The initial excitement surrounding the Raconteurs came down to one basic notion: If Jack White can do so much with just drums and a guitar in The White Stripes, what could he accomplish when backed by an entire band? It may have taken a couple years to find out, but “Consolers of the Lonely” finally answers that question with absolute certainty in what must be considered one of the best albums of 2008.

Grade: A

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