Plays Well with Others

Even an eye-obscuring hat can't hide the Raconteurs' biggest star

Even an eye-obscuring hat can't hide the Raconteurs' biggest star

The Raconteurs
Broken Boy Soldiers

Some days you just have to stop caring about history. I know that a lot of peoples' favorite rock bands nowadays sound like a lot of other peoples' favorite rock bands thenadays, which is supposedly some sort of sign that the genre's wheels are stuck and the new hotness is happening elsewhere. I'd be lying if I said I could justify an argument against that notion, but it seems even harder to justify the idea that music doesn't have an intrinsic thrill to it if it sounds like a throwback. When you put together a band composed of Jack White (blues-rock!), Brendan Benson (Beatle-pop!), and the rhythm section from the Greenhornes (unremarkable but solid Nuggets tribute!), it's a lot easier to expect likeable familiarity rather than visionary innovation. Hell, they're a rock band, not 3M.

If the Raconteurs' debut Broken Boy Soldiers has any weaknesses, they don't stem from the fact that its first single, "Steady, As She Goes" is for all intents and purposes Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him" in T. Rex garb. It's not because some other songs might sound like that other supergroup White's probably sick of being compared to (hint: it rhymes with Fred Schleplin). Most of all, it has nothing to do with the fact that it breaks no new ground whatsoever. The weakness, such as it is, hinges on Broken Boy Soldiers sounding less like the collection of analogous singles they set out to make and more like a Greatest Hits, one that recounts the peaks of a wildly fluctuating but nonexistent 10-year career with no other albums to fill in the blanks. The giddy love song "Hands" and the absurdist, faux-inane "Intimate Secretary" run on power-pop riffs and Rubber Soul harmonies, but since they bookend the loping, spooky "Broken Boy Soldier"—a neurotic railway blues gallop about arrested adolescence that sounds like Clinic fleeing the headless horseman—all three sound jarring. And the latter half of the record is one weird mood swing, from the abbreviated doses of arena-rock swagger in "Level" and "Store Bought Bones," into the bucolic, acoustic semi-psychedelia of "Yellow Sun" and "Call It a Day," which run smack dab into "Blue Veins," a distraught ersatz-Otis R&B ballad that ends the record on a weary moan. It's all recognizably the same band, and all well-done, but it's also distractingly disjointed, like they went through a decade's worth of evolutionary phases in a couple months' recording.

Some of this might be frustrating if you approach this album as a Jack White side project without knowing much of anything about the other three members. Benson's a power-pop specialist in the vein of Matthew Sweet; his 2005 album The Alternative to Love was maybe half a step below the best New Pornographers album (if nowhere nearly as critically lauded). Bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler don't get too many opportunities to show off in their gig with the Greenhornes, but White thought highly enough of them to recruit their services for Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, and they prove to be a versatile set of talents; not for nothing are they the first two musicians you hear on the record. White has a history of working well with others without overwhelming them, from his songwriting and guitar contributions on the Go's 1999 bubblegum-garage colossus Whatcha Doin', to the bassline on "Go It Alone" from last year's meta-Beck album. And since all the other band members have been collaborating with him in the last couple of years, there's no real chemistry problem here, much less a frontman syndrome—just a surplus of ideas that feel like a scattered bunch of sharp pop songs in search of a context.

Then again, maybe context is exactly what they're trying to escape. There are probably bigger sins than releasing the best singles-oriented rock album of the year's first (and maybe second) half, and Broken Boy Soldiers makes a hell of a lot more sense on shuffle amid 5,000 other songs where cohesion is fleeting. Given their band-of-friends camaraderie, the Raconteurs come across as an opportunity for one of the decade's biggest rock stars to recapture the feeling of being a semi-incognito part of a whole. There's a White Stripes sound and a Brendan Benson sound, but you can't say there's a Raconteurs sound, really. And what visual aesthetic they affect is—plaid couture and Apple IIc website notwithstanding—devoid of any attention-grabbing novelty; even the Jim Jarmusch-directed video for "Steady, As She Goes" skews toward the grainy middle-of-nowhere band performance that was de rigeur for mid-'90s rock vids. At the same time, it's also a chance for another, underexposed songwriter to feel more like a rock star. White and Benson meet there halfway—and as it turns out, even though the record as a whole struggles to present an internal harmony, their voices have no trouble whatsoever finding theirs.