Album reviews are for “new-to-me” albums that I’m experiencing and digesting for the first time.
For eleven years, the Raconteurs were absent from musical relevance. While their official hiatus wasn’t announced until 2011, their last album, Consolers of the Lonely, was released in 2008 and saw them slowly fade from the limelight. They spent a good deal of time touring and appearing in festivals in the years leading up to their hiatus (I was lucky enough to have seen them three times in their career), but they were off the radar for anyone that wasn’t a Raconteurs fan.
When they announced their break from music as The Raconteurs, I assumed it was permanent. Jack White was beginning to dip his toes into solo act freedom–and the others? Well. I don’t know. They were so far off my radar, as just Brendan Benson and The Greenhorns (or Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence), that I didn’t hear anything about them, nor did I think to look. So when I came across an awesome song on a Spotify alternative playlist that sounded familiar, you can imagine my surprise when I saw it was The Raconteurs. That song was “Sunday Driver”, and the accompanying album I discovered shortly thereafter, was Help Us Stranger.
Help Us Stranger dropped on June 21st, 2019, a few days before I had discovered “Sunday Driver” on Spotify (this review is almost a year late). It was like a little gift from the music gods, that I happened upon that playlist and that song, right in time to find their new album. “I’m here right now / I’m not dead yet”, Brendan Benson reminds us on “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”. I’m thankful for that.
That’s how I felt upon first listening to it, when I intended to write this review. So it’s nowhere near new anymore, but it’s new to me, and that’s the premise of this album review segment (and song reviews) that I intend to do. So let’s hit the broad strokes, before diving into my favorite part: opinion-based list-making for arbitrary reasons!
The garage rock revival may be over, but no one told the Raconteurs. Big electric guitar and the solos that love them; fuzzy bass lines; synths that sound like fuzzy bass lines; 60’s-style harmonies; and riffs reminiscent of classic rock songs that you can’t quite put your finger on–it definitely feels like the garage rock of yore.
However, the Raconteurs did a fabulous job over all three of their studio albums, progressing and experimenting with their sound, while staying firmly in the alt rock genre. That’s the beauty of alt rock–it’s broad enough to be your playground no matter what you decide to do. Just ask Jack White.
Help Us Stranger does the familiar Raconteurs sound with a shiny new coat. There’s not a singular word to describe how it sounds, so I’ll use several: it feels like a callback to a lot of late 60’s rock, especially psychedelia-influenced rock in some moments. It has country elements, as Consolers did, but the squealing guitars and driving drums keep recalling an older time, with older bands, that the Raconteurs have imbued into their sound. It’s as natural as though they, too, came from the 60’s.
There’s nothing that feels reused or recycled from old albums though, nor does it feel forced or out of its element. This is a mistake I see in other artists who either try to recreate their old sound that they’ve already outgrown (and fail), or try to do something new and experimental that they can’t handle (and fail). It’s possible to retain your signature sound, while growing as an artist. Just ask Jack White…again. Sure, his solo records aren’t flawless, but you sure as hell wouldn’t confuse any of them for White Stripes material (or The Raconteurs, or Dead Weather, for that matter).
The writing is as strong as ever. It’s been my belief since the dawn of my love for this band that Brendan is the lifeblood of the writing. I love Jack White and his brand of songwriting, but I’m fond of the way Brendan can turn a phrase and evoke emotion in his solo work. I attribute a lot of that same feeling in Help Us Stranger (and all of the Raconteurs’ albums) to him. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. Both Jack and Brendan are credited as co-writers on every song, save for the Donovan cover “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)”. However, a helpful track-by-track commentary is available on Spotify for the album, which gives us some insight. It’s better than nothing, which is essentially what we got for their first two albums.
Okay, but enough of that. How about we rank these songs from worst to best, according to my incredibly subjective rubric that no one else will have any say in and probably disagree with?
12. Shine the Light on Me – I would probably love this song if not for the inane piano ditty that plays incessantly throughout this song. I’m not sure if I’m just too uncool to get this or what. While the song has positive aspects (including the fact that it sounds like a White Stripes’ song), I generally find it unenjoyable because of the melody.
11. Only Child – While there is no recycled content on Help Us Stranger, “Only Child” is definitely the “Old Enough” of this album. Unfortunately, they can’t match the playfulness of the latter song. It’s not that I don’t like old man, preachy wisdom sticking it to some idiot younger person, it’s just that this song doesn’t hit for me at all. It’s decent enough, but not enough to pull it out of this low-ass spot at 11.
10. Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) – Never heard the original, and I’m not gonna start now. Look, I’m not a professional musician. I don’t know musical terms, but this sounds like a song you would hear in a saloon in the 20’s. Or, the soundtrack to a Donkey Kong Country level. Not my style at all. What I can get into is that fierce harmonic solo by Brendan. I wish they had put horns on this song, too, just totally leaning into a campy, goofy song.
9. Don’t Bother Me – Is this a political song? Is it about obnoxious youths? A girlfriend who you can’t get rid of? I don’t know. I suspect it’s about nothing, since Jack himself said he just created a character who was accusatory and vengeful. It’s a short, fast track that finds its best moments in the outro. A tempo change guides us into a guitar solo, while madman drummer Patrick Keeler lets loose in the background.
8. What’s Yours is Mine – For such a cool and weird song, they certainly didn’t bother with any real message or consistent lyrics. I have no idea what it’s about, and I don’t know why that bothers me so much. But it hurts what would otherwise be a really cool song. The dissident vocals and sharp departure from the established melody late in the song help to give it character, but I just can’t get past the pointless lyrics when there are better tracks to serve the purpose of marrying good melody and good writing.
7. Help Me Stranger – The acoustic guitar that makes the backbone of this song is juxtaposed against an electric guitar improvising on top of it. It’s what I’d call a “vibey” song, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t still end up wishing they just made a full version of the country song they teased at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, it has some tasty guitar and an interesting music composition. I like the song, but I like all the remaining songs better. Probably because I hate when lyrics talk directly about a song being a song, i.e. “I wish I had the words / and I want those words to rhyme” and “these 16 strings we’re strumming”.
6. Live a Lie – This energetic track has a punk rock energy (Jack White agrees). It would be just a flash in the pan rock song (and I’d be okay with that), but the message of deceit and wanting to live in ignorant bliss gives this song some heft. I didn’t expect it to land here, but I have to follow where the songs take me.
5. Bored and Razed – This will for sure be the show-opener for the tour supporting this album. If it’s not, they need to fire whoever steers them away from it. It gives a shout out to all their hometowns! A good, ole-fashioned rock song, it gets the job done and is very easy to jam to, as the professional term goes. With Jack White’s signature guitar squealing in between the vocals, “Bored and Razed” sets the tone for an album that features a lot more where that came from.
4. Thoughts and Prayers – Oh this tongue and cheek little bugger. I didn’t expect this song to be so good, with a satirical name like “Thoughts and Prayers”. Lyrically, it’s gold. Musically though? Actually, also, gold. That slight bluegrass vibe with mandolins and violins (fiddles, you mean?) is my jam and if they did an entire album of this style, it wouldn’t be enough. Let’s just be thankful we have this though.
3. Sunday Driver – This song is an absolute blast from start to finish. I already count it as one of my favorite Raconteurs song overall. I just dig everything about it–a song so modernly retro, or retro-ly modern, that I am using the word “dig” unironically. The lyrics mean absolutely nothing, and I couldn’t care less, because have you heard the riff on this thing? Garage rock heaven. Yeah, I’m a hypocrite for docking “What’s Yours Is Mine” for having meaningless lyrics, but once again, I’d like to call your attention to the ABSOLUTE BEEFY RIFF on this thing. Every component of the song works well together, too, like a fully-fleshed out song should. The meandering guitars backing up the monster riff, Jack White screaming over top, the song just building and evolving, until it eventually melts into this “Magic Carpet Ride”-esque moment of spooky harmonies and divergent guitar notes. 10/10, would recommend. And yet, it’s only 3. Damn, what a good top 3 we have.
2. Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) – On paper, I wouldn’t have picked this over “Sunday Driver” or maybe even put it in the top 5. The most country song on the album, this song is also one of the simplest. It’s lyrically sparse, but incredibly powerful. With a candid performance by Brendan as the backdrop, Jack’s guitar pickin’ is free to shine, and I absolutely love it. I don’t think of these lyrics as being especially beautiful on their own merit, but the emotion behind it feels intimate and real, something that “Shine the Light” and “Don’t Bother Me” both lack, despite this sense I get that I’m supposed to feel something with those two. The second part, where the song completely changes, as they repeat “I’m here right now; I’m not dead yet” was a fantastic addition and perfectly complements the rest of the song.
1. Now That You’re Gone – Somehow this one crept up to the number one spot, and I don’t know why. Except, I do. It’s the bluesiest song on the album. It’s not terribly obfuscated, with all that Jack White guitar shredding and the soul-tastic “doo wop” influenced harmonies in the background, but the style and format of the song is hardly your typical blues copycat song. This song also has something on “Sunday Driver”, a song I really wanted to put at number one: it’s earnest and painful. Like “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”, the lyrics tell a convincing story (whether or not it’s based on reality), and I feel like I’m able to relate to the lyrics and the emotion behind it, even if I haven’t been in that exact scenario.
That’s it! That’s my review and track listing for The Raconteurs Help Us Stranger. I’ll be around, posting as often as I can and feel like it. Hoping to grow and evolve this blog as we go.