Get behind me, Meg! Jack White and Brendan Benson's thrilling psych-garage project - with a bassist!
The busman’s holiday has a long if mixed history in rock annals. From makeshift supergroups to one-off time-killers to impromptu jam sessions, sideline moonlightings are part of the very fabric of popular music. Normally, the point of the side project is to either have fun or to explore some esoteric preoccupation that an artist’s more mainstream “day job” won’t allow. Either way, it tends to involve musicians doing something less, rather than more, commercial.
What makes The Raconteurs unusual is that they’re – in part, at least – a vehicle for Jack White to do something more conventional than the White Stripes. Where that two-hand Motor City phenom flouted every rule in the rock manual and became the coolest group in the world anyway, The Raconteurs are a) all-male, b) four-piece, c) guitar-driven and d) hard-rockin’ and ass-kickin’. You expect it of Ryan Adams, but not of Little Jack W.
The good news is that while Les Raconteurs – raffish, rakish storytellers, perhaps? – operate within the coded confines of mannish-boy US guitar rock, much of Broken Boy Soldiers is fired by the same liberated, intuitive spirit that drives the Stripes. And yes, they sound like they’re having fun, if you define fun as being able to pretend you’re Ron Asheton for a night.
The Raconteurs were born of the friendship – musical and actual – between gothic-blues-punk urchin-god White and bedsit powerpop craftsman Brendan Benson. And while a Venn diagram might not easily display the common ground ‘twixt White’s neo-Zep minimalist primitivism and Benson’s Fountains of Wayne-meets-Matthew Sweet’n’sour singer-songwriting, The Raconteurs enables them to meet halfway and produce music they’d never otherwise have attempted. Imagine two overgrown kids trying on each other’s clothes.
For overgrown kids read Broken Boy Soldiers. The album’s (not quite) title track “Broken Boy Soldier” turns out to be a brilliant dissertation on immature indie musicians, set to a galloping garage-psych groove and boasting an inflamed White vocal that inevitably recalls the Steve Marriott of “Tin Soldier”. “I’m child of man, and child again,” White all but yelps. “The toy broken boy soldier…” A veiled dig at the incestuous, internecine Detroit scene? Or just the self-examination of a sometime demon-child superbrat who’s now the wrong side of 30? Either way, it’s one of the album’s 16-carat tracks.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that “Steady, As She Goes” is another. The Raconteurs’ opening salvo sounds as snap-cracklingly great as it did when it was first unleashed as a 7” single in January. If Broken Boy Soldiers is, as Benson has suggested, Detroit’s Nevermind – it isn’t, but never mind – then “Steady” is The Raconteurs’ irresistible “Teen Spirit”. To hear inimitable White lines (“Your friends have shown a kink in the single life/You’ve had too much to think, now you need a wife”) riding on driving drums and churning guitars is a pleasure one should just surrender to. Pointing out that “Steady” isn’t as radical as “Seven Nation Army” or “Blue Orchid” – let alone “The Nurse” – would, frankly, be pedantic.
Some tracks on Broken Boy Soldiers, (“Together”, “Call It a Day”) could have made it on to the next Brendan Benson album without much fuss, just as a stripped-down version of the superb “Store Bought Bones” might easily have migrated to the next Stripes opus. Other songs, however – “Intimate Secretary”, “Yellow Moon” – sound like pure fusions of White and Benson. On “Hands”, “Intimate Secretary” and “Call It a Day”, the two men come together perfectly via Beatlish harmonies that summon nothing so much as the ghosts of Revolver’s “She Said, She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”. In any case, it would be rash to assume it’s Benson who brings the whiteboy-retro melodicism to the table, or that White inserts the more twisted, blackened moments into songs such as “Hands” or “Level”. En passant, let’s acknowledge, too, the power that The Greenhornes’ rhythm section (bassist Jack Lawrence, drummer Patrick Keeler) bring to The Raconteurs. Those who recall the thrilling “Portland, Oregon” on Loretta Lynn’s White-produced Van Lear Rose will be aware of the heat this Cincinnati duo generate.
There are some flat moments on Broken Boy Soldiers, it must be said. As someone who’s been left lukewarm by his solo work, I find Benson’s spotlight moments here a tad anodyne. “Together” and “Call It A Day” serve their structural purpose as quasi-ballad lulls in the proceedings, but are both rather dreary. When the Beck-ish funk-rock grind of “Level” kicks in after “Together”, you’ll breathe a giant sigh of relief.
The influence of Beck (with whom White collaborated on Guero’s “Go It Alone” last year) can also be detected on “Store Bought Bones”, with its jabbing Jon Lord organ and gnarly slide whinnying. The song’s electrifying “You can’t buy whatcha can’t find whatcha can’t buy…” middle eight could have come straight off Elephant. Interestingly, though, it transpires that it’s Benson, not White, doing the Duane Allman honours.
It’s probably a good thing that Little Jack has the last word – or conte – on Broken Boy Soldiers. Prefaced by backwards Revolver guitars, “Blue Veins” sounds for all the world like the kind of thing the raw young Robert Plant was singing in his mid-‘60s blue-eyed-soul days with the forgotten Listen – ironic given a stray White remark that Sir Percy was what he least liked about Led Zeppelin. (Plant to me in 2003: “I think, ‘Well, that’s fine, boy, but if you’re going to play ‘In My Time Of Dying’, listen to the master’.”) A slice of “House Of The Rising Sun”-style melodrama in 6/8 time, replete with gospelly piano and shimmering vibrato guitar, “Blue Veins” unavoidably leads us back into Stripes-world.
Which is probably what Broken Boy Soldiers will do anyway. Anyone who thinks Jack White will give up the avant-garde Americana – or the liberating constrictions – of his work with Meg clearly doesn’t understand this most maverick and ornery of contemporary rock gods. In the meantime, it’s a treat to hear the guy telling his tales, playing his songs, and having the fun he deserves.
By Barney Hoskyns