Like all rock stars, it was only a matter of time before Jack White started in with the side projects. Ten years ago there was no indication precisely how many side projects he would indulge, making the debut of the Raconteurs in 2006 a minor event in the world of rock music. The Ranconteurs were much more than a Jack White vanity project though. For someone with such a reputation as a musical Willy Wonka, Jack White is generally quite collaborative when he’s in a band. For this new venture he teamed up with Brendan Benson, another singer-songwriter from the Detroit area, and with Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, two musicians from the Cincinnati band The Greenhornes. Back in 2006 it was pitched as something of a “supergroup,” though Jack White was far and away the most well-known one, making it a somewhat spurious usage of the “supergroup” label. But for all of the minor hoopla surrounding the release of their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, in 2006, the first album from The Raconteurs is a somewhat unassuming one.
Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. If the first single, “Steady, As She Goes,” is any indication, it could actually be quite a boon. Bolstered by a bouncing bassline and an understated guitar part, it’s easily the best song on the album, and one of the best singles Jack White would ever be involved in. The catchy refrain and steady beat sounds altogether more polished and conventional than anything by The White Stripes, while still feeling different enough from most rock music, especially the stuff that was popular in 2006. The band has an altogether different atmosphere from the gutteral punch of the White Stripes. Brendan Benson has a smoother voice than Jack, and its used to great effect when a song requires a less squawking vocal. And as much as I enjoy the persistent thump of Meg White’s drumming, there’s a definite versatility that a more conventional drummer like Patrick Keeler can lend to this music.
But elsewhere the restrained quality of the album erodes some of its power. A couple of songs feel more like sketches than properly formed song, especially second single “Level,” which seems to stop about halfway through, as well as “Store Bought Bones,” a somewhat Doors-style rocker that is over in under two-and-a-half minutes. Short songs are of course not a problem, but since this is a rather lean album in the first place, barely over 30 minutes, there’s a rather sketched-in quality to the whole thing. Combined with some lyrics that could graciously be described as hot nonsense (like on “Intimate Secretary”) and there’s a feeling that the album was kind of bashed out without a lot of thought. This might well have been the case, since the White Stripes always worked quickly. But whereas the Stripes were consistently able to use that quickness to deliver untapped power, here it feels more like a break from the “real” careers of the band members.
Not that that’s really a problem of course. There’s not a bum track here, just a couple that are rather slight. It’s possible that this atmosphere was entirely intentional, since it does give the album a feeling of a throwback. Again and again, Broken Boy Solidiers proves its obsession with nostalgic music trends. But rather than the American roots music and garage punk that informed the White Stripes, the Raconteurs are much more consciously driven by the rock music of the 60s and 70s. Some tracks feel like they were written and recorded in 1969, especially the haunting title track, all wailing guitars and a steady frantic drumbeat. It’s like a nightmare version of The Who.”Call It A Day” feels like a languid cut from a T. Rex album.
So what we are left with is an album that is fun, rocking, and breezy, but one that feels more like a take on classic rock sounds than it is interested in forging its own path. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is truly a side project, a sideshow marking time until the members can all get back to their various careers. It stands as an enjoyable album, but one that is somewhat minor as well.
Alone In My Home (In which Nate shares his personal connection with Jack White’s albums):
Fun fact: Broken Boy Soldiers was the first album I purchased in a solely digital format. I found myself with some $10 of credit from iTunes and so I picked it up, driven by my love of the White Stripes. It’s always sat there as something of a footnote for me. I genuinely love “Steady, As She Goes” and most of the quieter tracks in the back half of the album have aged incredibly well. But something about the harder rocking songs always sounded so perfunctory to me, like the band was performing them without a lot of convictions. It wouldn’t be until their second album that the Raconteurs would really shine, but there is still a lot to enjoy about their lighter debut.
Steady As She Goes (In which Nate ranks all of Jack White’s albums as he reviews them):
2. Get Behind Me Satan
3. White Blood Cells
4. De Stijl
5. Broken Boy Soldiers
6. The White Stripes