Fortunately, this reviewer got to spend three entire days with the Raconteurs' new album, a luxury many critics didn't get, due to its much-reported rush release. Fortunate because, on the first two listens, the initial reaction was there really isn't much there there; the album's so eclectic in terms of musical influences and genres that it sounds like a bit of a rushed mess at first. But repeated listens dictate that there's plenty here and even much to recommend.
The goal was obviously to make a classic rock (as in the radio format) album, and the first thing the listener will note is how big the guitars sound throughout. In fact, the pair of songs that open Consolers Of the Lonely — the title track and "Salute Your Solution" — feature monster guitar riffs that wouldn't sound out of place on a Free or early Aerosmith record. The biggest riffs are often psychedelic blues-based; later on the disc, you even get some of those distorted ax sounds that Jack White made famous on "Seven Nation Army." But what's most interesting about all this is that the Raconteurs can create a sound — sometimes within the same song — that recalls the Peter Green/"Oh, Well"-era Fleetwood Mac, while at the same time featuring pop sensibilities that might suggest the Buckingham-Nicks-era Mac.
And there lies this band's magic. The Raconteurs are a band striving to find the balance between White's more blues-based, Zep-influenced aesthetic and Brendan Benson's melodic, pure pop songcraft instinct. It's not quite the dynamic dichotomy rock fans once experienced in the differences between Lennon and McCartney, of course, but it makes for interesting listening nevertheless. Thus, you have the acoustic Zep-like sound-alike moments of "Top Yourself" and "These Stones Will Shout" mingling alongside such tracks as, say, "You Don't Understand Me," which, melodically, recalls a pastiche of Bowie's "Sweet Thing/Candidate" from Diamond Dogs (complete with a Mike Garson-like tinkling piano part; a lot of superb keyboard playing on this disc, in fact) and Oasis's "Wonderwall." Critics have complained how difficult it is to distinguish between the vocals of White and Benson on this album (though most of those same critics have compared "Rich Kid Blues" to Boston and Foreigner — I don't hear it — without noting the song is the LP's only cover, written by Terry Reid, who opened for the Stones' '69 U.S. tour and was originally asked to sing for Led Zeppelin). But, again, with repeated listens, it's not hard at all to distinguish between who's responsible for what, even if that annoying, whiny, high-pitched voice White uses with the White Stripes only rears its ugly head here twice and is, for some reason, more tolerable in this band.
Benson's presence ensures that "The Switch and the Spur" could almost be Squeeze doing one of those early Marty Robbins Western tunes. Much has already been made of the song's "Spaghetti Western" approach, mariachi-like horns and all. But while it's no Ennio Morricone, it's more ambitious than one expects from a rock 'n' roll band in an era of decreased expectations. Likewise, "Many Shades of Black" shares a spiritual kinship with early '70s McCartney — one might even sense a whiff of Billy Joel's "Movin' Out" (!) — and is as infectious as such comparisons suggest. The White-Benson co-writing lines blur a little more on "Old Enough," a country-pop ditty that approaches some of the best '70s country-rock (ditto the Stones-ish countryesque "Pull This Blanket Off"); the electronic pop guitar that closes the bluesy rocker "Attention"; or the epic (the album strives for that word several times) album closer, the Dylanesque "Carolina Drama." Returning to a Western motif, it's certainly not Dylan (because it's Jack White doing Dylan as opposed to Robert Zimmerman inventing Dylan), but still more ambitious in an age of, etc., etc. And it works.
Much has also been made of the album's rush release, with some critics calling the pre-release policy the beginnings of the death of criticism. But while good criticism can indeed still enrich a listening experience, this isn't the first time for something like this — didn't Neil Young basically do the same thing, albeit with less pretense, on Living with War? — nor will it be the last. White's already seeing a critical backlash with the release of this; perhaps deserved, perhaps not. Whatever the case, though, this is a very good album, surely one of the best of the year. Is it as classic as the classic material it seeks to emulate? It's really hard to tell in this age of decreased expectations.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].