|The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Thursday, 01 May 2008|
Though their debut mashed together the dual poles of the Brendan Benson/Jack White songwriting team so thoroughly that it was occasionally difficult to tell who was singing lead let alone who wrote the song, here their tendencies have become more defined. And where they seemed to be equal writers in the mix last time around, here White emerges as the dominant voice, offering a series of songs that sound like leftover White Stripes tracks that he decided to save for this project. No better example of that exists than the leadoff title track, a song that, despite having Benson sing the verses, goes through all the normal Stripes motifs, from whiplash riffs and falsetto shrieks to a thudding drumbeat that slows down and speeds back up. “Salute Your Solution” follows with another blast of supercharged riff-rock, with White again singing lead and trading lines with Benson on the chorus before launching into a frenzied guitar solo. For anyone who wanted the Raconteurs to sound like the White Stripes expanded into a four-piece, this reinforces just how essential the uncluttered template is to those kinds of arrangements. Here, it just sounds like typical garage rock with none of the hybridization that you’d expect from such multi-talented musicians.
Luckily, the emphasis on guitar riffs soon fades, leading the band into new territory. Where their debut danced around the edges of psychedelic rock, country and blues experiments, here the emphasis shifts to international flavors, with the snaking fiddle leads and spongy organ riffs of “Old Enough” recalling British folk icons Fairport Convention. Similarly, the droning acoustic guitar lines of “These Stones Will Shout” have a distinctly Celtic feel, though the song soon transitions into growling guitars and a flurry of windmill riffs and thundering drums that evoke the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Even more experimental is “The Switch and the Spur,” a prog-rock mutation mixing Rush with America and adding epic mariachi horns and a convoluted tale of a jailbreak on horseback to create the album’s ultimate nadir. It’s hard not to admire the audacity of it, but if ‘70s prog-rock bands deserved ridicule for writing songs about dragons and elves, this one doesn’t get any extra credit for transplanting itself into a Western motif. “Any poor souls who trespass against us / whether it be beast or man / will suffer the bite or be stung dead on sight / by those who inhabit this land,” Benson sings with conviction, elevating the absurdity of a song that feels silly from the start.
Far better is “Many Shades of Black,” a horn-laced soul ballad that ranks as just about the only notable contribution from Benson on the whole album. With a gorgeously lilting chorus and a searing guitar solo, it’s a fine addition to Benson’s catalog, proof that he isn’t limited to melancholy power pop. Similarly successful is “Pull This Blanket Off,” a gospel-tinged piano ballad with countrified guitar licks and brotherly harmonies that make up for also-ran lyrics. Best of all is “Carolina Drama,” a Southern rock epic that echoes White’s love for the country melodrama, twisting the conventions of murder ballads with love triangles and punch line endings. Ultimately, it’s the only track on the album that adds much of anything to White’s body of work, more evidence of the breadth of his interests as a songwriter.
Eventually, the comfortable guitar riff reclaims center stage, with the wah-wah shout-along of “Hold Up” consisting of little more than arena clichés and repeating the title over and over on the chorus. Just as bad is “Attention,” a keyboard- and fuzz bass-driven slab of ‘80s pop that could have fit on a Def Leopard album. This all leads up to the squealing leads and pile-driving power chords of “Five on the Five,” a well-groomed piece of radio rock with tinkling cowbell and “whoa-oh” exaltations that draw it closer to a Green Day outtake than anything in the classic rock canon from which White and Benson borrow from so carefully. In short, for every experiment that works out on this album, there’s a stunningly dunderheaded rocker that makes you rethink just how brilliant all those White Stripes albums actually are.
Despite being exceptional songwriters, White and Benson simply don’t work very well together. White, whose gift is taking the fundamentals of American music and twisting and subverting them into something more primal, is cleaned up by Benson’s pop acumen, rubbing away the raw edges that makes White so singularly compelling. The odd quirks and excesses of his personality are gone here, replaced by a less interesting caricature, with the blues patois of his previous work dropped in favor of arena-ready anthems and standard rock rejoinders. Benson fares no better, as his gift for creating nuanced power pop melodies is lost when paired with White’s tendency to favor bold and bludgeoning strokes. In the end, it seems that White functions best within the confines of the White Stripes because he is allowed to dominate the songwriting so completely. He is simply not an artist who needs his power diluted by another artist, however good he or she is.
Case in point, “You Don’t Understand Me” has all the makings of a classic White piano ballad, holding down a smoky groove with bluesy flourishes before Benson’s swooning chorus enters and waters down the directness of White’s hook. Even their writing styles are incompatible, as White cuts directly to the heart of his despair while Benson gets tangled in vague rejoinders. “There’s always another point of a view, a better way to do the things we do,” Benson sighs after White issues a series of indictments, knocking down the potent certainty of his sentiments by cooing “How can you know me and I know you / if nothing is true?” All in all, it’s a nice track, completed with a bit of frenzied piano pounding and multi-tracked harmonies, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard on a Tom Petty album.
All in all, Consolers of the Lonely becomes the rare album that ends up failing because of its ambitions. Somehow, despite being more eclectic, better performed and more elaborately imagined, it ends up being a lesser album than their debut because its songs reveal nothing beyond their surfaces, no reward beyond the barrage of hooks and riffs. Most of this is due to the fact that even the best moments sound indebted to some era or genre of songwriting, whether borrowing bits from the Stooges here or Peter Frampton there, and the riffs and hooks simply aren’t very memorable once the act of experimentation is recognized. But most disappointing is how a group of such obviously talented musicians can make an album so bland, so predictable and calculated. As far as the canon of great bands is concerned, the Raconteurs end up far closer to Velvet Revolver than Led Zeppelin.
Compared to fuzzy-around-the-edges Broken Boy Soldiers, this album glistens with hi-fi gloss, with everything pushed high in the mix in clear and bold strokes. The guitars are thick but not gritty. The vocals are multi-layered but lack emotion. The performances are impeccably tight but lack the sort of spontaneity that makes for inspired albums. All in all it sounds fine, but the clean textures don’t suit White particularly well, and no amount of polish is going to make up for such a pronounced lack of memorable song ideas. No matter what your stereo equipment, it’s going to sound about the same.