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The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    7
release year:    2006
label:    V2
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageHaving built his musical economy out of simplicity and uniformity, it was inevitable that Jack White was eventually going to want to experiment with musical shades that go beyond guitar and drums and red and white. Belonging to no particular era or genre – adding the ethos of blues to the energy of garage rock, mixing the earnestness of country with the attitude of punk – he has positively thrived on his self-imposed limitations. Simply put, he’s a self-made iconoclast, and he has carefully managed his persona to maintain his Charlie Chaplain-mixed-with-Robert Johnson mystique. Behind the brother and sister myth, high-minded innocence and faux-primitive approach is an artist who has excelled because he knows his strengths and works well within them. And while last year’s Get Behind Me Satan was decidedly not an electric guitar album – with White bringing in marimba, piano and acoustic guitars to create an oddly disjointed but admirably ambitious release – the first real crack in White’s creative artifice is the Raconteurs, his songwriting project with fellow Detroit tunesmith Brendan Benson. As the appeal of White’s music has always been as intuitive as a good hook and as visceral as a distorted guitar riff, this is his first attempt to dress himself up in different clothes.

Believe it or not, the Raconteurs are a real honest-to-God collaborative rock band, not another supergroup farce where egos mingle and waste other people’s time. With Benson sharing the songwriting duties and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler deftly filling out the rhythm section, Jack White’s adamant claim that this band is not simply his “star” project is proven true, as no one voice dominates Broken Boy Soldiers. Though there are definite Jack White moments on the smoldering piano blues of “Blue Veins” and Benson’s fingerprints are all over the hazy psych-pop spirals of “Hands,” such moments of clear paternity are rare, and the creative stew is largely muddled enough that it’s impossible to know who exactly contributed what. For artists as distinctive as White and Benson, this isn’t always a good thing.
The best amalgam of the White/Benson duo arrives on leadoff single “Steady, as She Goes,” a smart mélange of power-pop immediacy and swirling guitar crunch that sounds pretty much exactly like what you’d dream up if you were to combine their two aesthetics. What follows is not nearly so exceptional, from the meandering back-and-forth blues-rock grunt of “Level” to the lumbering phased organ riffs and slide guitar of “Store Bought Bones,” two tracks that could have been on just about any classic-era Bad Company or Cheap Trick album. At times the writing seems to lack focus, with throwaway lines such as “I’ve got a rabbit, it likes to hop/I’ve a girl and she likes to shop” turning up on the Who-ish arena rock of “Intimate Secretary” and the tritely underwritten soft rock love balladry of “Together.” To that extent, White and Benson seem to have set humble goals, as much of the album seems far closer to ‘70s radio rock than anything else either of them has done.

That lack of a clear sonic identity is the album’s most glaring shortcoming. Often, this
sounds like an album made by musicians still finding a band’s collective voice, too polite to push too hard in any one direction. The resulting album doesn’t present any of its creators at the height of their creative strengths. No doubt White and Benson’s gifts are complementary, and the band’s playing as a whole is swaggering and spirited, tight and note-perfect when necessary and loose and ragged when appropriate. Still, the songwriting elements are underdeveloped and muddled. Benson’s hooks aren’t nearly as sharp as those on his solo albums, and his occasional weakness for poor metaphors and suspect lyrical ideas emerge on occasion. White’s energy and experimentation remains present in surging guitars and the rough-around-the-edges arrangements, but nothing here is as inspired or dynamic as his best moments. Surprisingly, some of the album’s strongest efforts are its most understated, with the darkly clanging percussion and mewing guitar leads of the title track and the off-kilter acoustic pop recalling the Beatles circa Rubber Soul.

In the end, the Raconteurs arrive at a point where most supergroup projects like the Traveling Wilburys stalled. As intriguing as it sounds in theory, few people really want to hear what Bob Dylan sounds like trading off profundities with George Harrison when they could hear each of them in the purity of their own creative moments. No doubt, the Raconteurs sound as if they’re having a good time bouncing verses and riffs off each other, and no one moment on the album is particularly offensive. But the lack of anything exceptional has to make Broken Boy Soldiers ultimately rank as a disappointment. True collaboration is a tricky thing, as likely to dilute talent as push it to greater heights. This album is the sound of two great songwriters falling short of their best work, their combined prodigious talents resulting in a whole that is lesser than either of them on their own. At the end of the day, the Raconteurs are another rock band, plain and simple, and we already had plenty of those.

Recorded in Benson’s attic studio in Detroit, the album has the homemade and immediate feel of White’s work with the White Stripes. The production is ragged and fuzzy, with the rough edges left on the guitar riffs and the instruments not separated clearly in the mix. This approach suits them well, as the live in-studio sound of drums starting to congeal around blurry organs and crackling guitars fits the immediacy of their aesthetic.

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