by Pete Mazzaccaro
It’s only natural that two of the leading keepers of the guitar rock flame these last 20 years – Jack White (The Raconteurs, The White Stripes) and Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) – would release new albums a week apart. While one record finds a band renewed and in top form, the other lacks much of either quality.
The Raconteurs, “Help Us Stranger”
Jack White, whose White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army” has become one of the most regularly-played stadium anthems since Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” formed the Raconteurs in 2005 with fellow Detroit rock frontman Brendan Benson. The project, which added bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, was a marked change from the guitar and drumonly sound of the White Stripes, a band at the peak of its popularity at the time.
The Raconteur’s first single, “Steady as She Goes,” was a firecracker of a rock tune. Brisk guitars up front, a Pixies-esque dynamic of quiet verse to loud, rollicking chorus. It opened White’s songwriting to a broader sonic palate than what he had in the White Stripes. And no offense to his White Stripes partner, Meg White, but the Raconteurs were musicians who matched and complimented his talents. It was a good band.
Now, 11 years after its last album, the Raconteurs is back together with “Help Us Stranger,” a 12-song tour de classic rock force. Sharing songwriting duties, Benson and White weave from Zeppelin and Black Sabbath-esque riff rock to acoustic guitar and organ-backed fair that recalls Traffic and Blind Faith.
White has always teetered on the precipice of falling into the trap of being a wax museum piece – a performer who wears the pastiche of old garage and blues rock acts of the past. There is an element of truth to the criticism. There are no new sounds on “Help Us Stranger,” but the performances are quite good. The result is a record that is irresistibly fresh and energetic. It’s still a good band.
Key Songs: “Don’t Bother Me,” “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” “Sunday Driver”
The Black Keys, “Let’s Rock”
When I first heard the Black Keys in 2003, on their second record, “Thickfreakness,” I vastly preferred them to the White Stripes. Auerbach and his partner in drums, Patrick Carney, were sharper, haunting and satisfyingly weird, and they took the guitar-drum duo sound a step further. It was a step into delta blues that sounded more authentic.
The band’s latest, “Let’s Rock,” its first in five years, sounds light-years away from the vitality that made those early records interesting. While the Raconteurs gave White more to explore, the full-band sound of the Black Keys has produced a meandering 14 songs that do little to distinguish themselves. Too often, Auerbach sounds like he’s channeling the spirit of Steve Miller (ask your parents, kids). It’s the sound of a greatest hits blues rock act fit for the tape deck of an AMC Gremlin.
That may sound harsh, but I suspect Auerbach and Carney are capable of better than this. Where the Raconteurs resists the trap of being imposters, the Black Keys fall in head first, refried blues lick after refried blues lick.
Key Songs: None, really
Liner Notes is a new, regular column on music from an admittedly Gen X point of view. The author’s actual music can be found at WinstonsDog.com. Feedback on the column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org