“The one thing I hate is being labeled a side project,” Jack White bemoaned in August 2006, mere hours before The Raconteurs served as the house band for the MTV Video Music Awards. “We’ve invested too much time and effort into this band to be considered a side project. It’s no different than an actor having to step on to a set the first day and being expected to perform a certain role.”
Cohort Brendan Benson echoed White’s sentiments with the same sort of call and response delivery that defines much of The Raconteurs’ stellar new album, Consolers of the Lonely. “We’re very serious about trying to forge an identity as a band separate from the Greenhornes and that sort of thing,” he said. “How would we even play a White Stripes song anyways?”
Thankfully that question remains unanswered. Since forming The Raconteurs in 2005, the two Detroit natives have never attempted to replicate their past successes, instead assimilating and accentuating each other’s strengths. The enigmatic and engaging White Stripes frontman lays down thundering blues guitar and bewitching vocals, while Benson, conversely, bears a sharper sense of melody and pop dynamics. It’s the closest thing to a Mick and Keith combination to emerge thus far in the digital age. (Incidentally, White duets with Jagger for “Loving Cup” in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones’ documentary, Shine a Light.)
The duo quickly recruited bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler of Cincinnati-based garage-rock revivalists the Greenhornes, whom White had previously tapped as the rhythm section for Loretta Lynn’s 2004 comeback Van Lear Rose, while Benson had produced the Greenhornes’ 2005 EP East Grand Blues. “What was surprising was how quickly it all came together,” White said of “Steady, as She Goes,” the band’s first single, which developed over a cup of tea with Benson. “We wrote the whole album in 10 days and eventually just had to stop ourselves after the 10 songs and focus on what we’d already written.”
Recorded at Benson’s East Grand Studio in Detroit, The Raconteurs’ 2006 debut Broken Boy Soldier (V2) marched like a seven-nation army, split evenly between assembly line nuggets and Benson’s melodramatic ballads, save for the cryptic, soulful closer “Blue Veins.” Mojo magazine heralded the record as Album of the Year, but truth be told, it was a bit undeveloped, a mere snapshot of the budding group’s potential.
“What you hear on the album is the idea for a song, while the songs themselves are always evolving and changing as we grow as a band,” Benson explained then. “The record captures the band in a very early stage, which was important to us because we’ll never have the opportunity to sound like that again.”
Relocating to Music City, The Raconteurs cut their follow-up Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/WB) at Nashville’s Blackbird studio and rushed it to stores following its completion in the first week of March. This time around, everything coalesces into focus, beginning with the caterwauling one-two crunch of opener “Consoler of the Lonely” and lead single “Salute Your Solution,” which find White and Benson ricocheting leads with sweltering fervor.
Freed from the self-imposed confines of the Stripes’ façade, White explores his eccentricities like never before, adding pixilated organ lines and the bright squall of his Black Cat fireworks solos to “Hold Up,” and delving into Zeppelin folk (“Old Enough”), Icky Thump (“Five on the Five”) and dustbowl blues (“Top Yourself”). The Benson-led epic “The Switch and the Spur” mends Morricone spaghetti Western noir with the epic progressions of The Moody Blues. The rendition of Terry Reid’s “Rich Kid Blues” tops Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” for the strongest cover in The Raconteurs’ canon, before closing with a storybook ending, the Dylan-esque narrative “Carolina Drama.”
Comparable to the Traveling Wilburys’ various volume entries, Consolers doesn’t quite equal the sum of its creative parts, but remains the strongest and most diverse album from any of these Raconteurs in years, which should be enough to finally shake the dreaded side-project label. “We don’t ever want people to expect anything from us,” White said in 2006. “We’ve never played the same set twice, and you never know what we’re going to do next.”
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