The Raconteurs are commonly described as a super group. And it's true that all four members are established musicians in their own right. The rhythm section - Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler - are two-fifths of the Cincinnati garage-R&B-folk-rock band the Greenhornes, and Brendan Benson is much admired by the indie-rock crowd for his sugary power pop anthems. But Jack White is the only true superstar among them, and he's the reason the project is getting the attention it is.
A more apt comparison is Jeff Tweedy's involvement in Loose Fur, the sporadic side project that includes Glenn Kotche and Jim O'Rourke. Tweedy uses Loose Fur to slip the yoke of expectations that comes with doing a Wilco album and to indulge his interest in earsplitting guitar feedback.The Raconteurs serve a similar purpose for White, allowing him to escape the red-and-white-striped straitjacket of his primary band, the White Stripes. In his case, however, this means damping down the earsplitting feedback and relinquishing some of his control.
White seems to relish this diminished role and encourages the view that the Raconteurs are a band of peers. He stands behind his band mates in the press photos, and hides behind his bangs or beneath the bill of a cabbie cap.All ten songs on the forthcoming album, "Broken Boy Soldiers" (out May 16 on Third Man/V2 records), are credited Benson-White.
But you don't hide Jack White under a bushel, and there are songs that will sound familiar to fans of his other work. The album opens with "Steady as She Goes," a song that White and Benson wrote during an attic jam session and the one that inspired them to form a band. It's a perfect blend of their distinctly different sounds: The verses are all hip-switch garage rock a la White, but the song swells into layered pop choruses and ends with squelchy guitar effects characteristic of Benson's solo work.
The title track is all White, with laser-Zeppelin vocals and momentous, chugging sound. The only thing that distinguishes it from a White Stripes song is the quality of the drumming. "Store Bought Bones" will be even more thrilling to Stripes fans, as it pits White's typically frantic vocals against staccato keyboards and squealing guitar solos played at the very bottom of the neck.
The remainder of the album is all over the map. "Hands" sounds like a Matthew Sweet song thickened with 1970s folk-rock guitar. "Intimate Secretary" is a nonsense song - "I've got a rabbit,it likes to hop / I've got a girl,and she likes to shop / the other foot looks like it won't drop / I had an uncle but he got shot" - played over epic knob tweaking and a big pulsating beat.
Light and playful with bouncy keyboards and jazzy drumming, "Yellow Sun" shoots for the Beatles but ends up closer to Badly Drawn Boy (thanks largely to the similarity between Damon Gough's and Benson's voices). Benson and White's attempts at Lennon-McCartney-style harmonizing look good on paper but don't come off in practice. The problem is that White's voice is too strange and scintillating; it steals the show even when he's singing backup (particularly on "Together").
White Stripes fans may not love much of this album, but they should take note of it anyway. Judging from his statements in the press, the Raconteurs may not be a sabbatical for White so much as an evolution. "You've always got to let the music dictate where you go," he recently told the Los Angeles Times."You die as a musician when you stop exploring."
White seems to recognize that he's pushed the spare, hyperactive White Stripes sound as far as it can go. In the last few years, he has been spending more and more of his energy exploring new sounds. He contributed traditional acoustic covers to the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack, and in 2004 produced and collaborated on Loretta Lynn's Grammy-winning album "Van Lear Rose" (which also featured Raconteurs Lawrence and Keeler).The Raconteurs might be best understood as a continuation of this trial-and-error process.
White finds a promising new direction in the album's final track, "Blue Veins." It's an eerie, after-hours lament played on piano, reverby guitar, and upright bass. He sings in a controlled quaver, but the words come in rushes: "Those that would enslave me would have to get past you but they'll have no luck because you protect me from all pain / yeah, it's true,"he sings.The result sounds a little like the "Twin Peaks" theme song, especially when White begins speaking backward. If he's looking for a way forward, this may be it.
The Raconteurs perform Friday night at Irving Plaza (17 Irving Place, between 15th and 16th Streets, 212-777-6800).