The Raconteurs, ‘Help Us Stranger': Album Review
His main band, the White Stripes, broke up. Another side project, the Dead Weather, released three albums. And White launched a solo career, which has also spawned a trio of records since the last time White made one with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler.
Help Us Stranger arrives in an environment where someone like White, a restless creative who cherishes the past but is always moving forward, can feel at home without the pressures of expectations bearing down too hard on him. His last album, 2018's solo Boarding House Reach, was all over the place -- not exactly a rock 'n' roll record, but not exactly not one either. Help Us Stranger is undoubtedly a rock 'n' roll record.
That doesn't mean White has lost his sense of adventure here. There are plenty of detours along the way, as the band swings to close-enough offshoots from time to time, injecting some folk, pop and freak-out psychedelia into the mix. "Bored and Razed" is a guitar-scorched opener that wastes little of its three and a half minutes making its stand; "Sunday Driver" rides a similar course midway through Help Us Stranger. There are others like that too.
But there's also "Now That You're Gone," which builds its verses on heartbeat percussion and piercing guitar that stabs at each word until everything oozes together into an electric soup, and a cover of Donovan's 1965 B-side "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)" that pretty much sounds like a cover of a Donovan B-side from 1965.
The Raconteurs leave their boldest move for the end. "Thoughts and Prayers" starts as a nearly acoustic hymn before collapsing into a stirring celebration of sound, complete with "Baba O'Riley"-like violin and fuzzy guitar. In a way, it's a summation of Help Us Stranger: the 11-year delay since Consolers of the Lonely, the band's quest to keep rock 'n' roll alive in 2019 and the undeniable star appeal of White, who, no matter how hard he tries to blend into various band backgrounds, always manages to find the spotlight.
Still, like most of White's projects, this is a collaboration and more than a sum of its parts. Singer-songwriter Benson, especially, has become White's sturdiest creative partner since Meg White hung up her drumsticks. He pushes White toward the band's more grounded stake in rock's classic landscape and also gives it the pop-leaning melodic edge much of White's other work lacks.
At this stage, the Raconteurs have evolved into, or maybe just became by default, the band for White's fans who want a return to the rock 'n' roll he made with the White Stripes, without the Dead Weather's occasional baggage and the sharp genre turns of his solo career. That doesn't always make for the most exciting music; at least a third of Help Us Stranger never quite takes off. But it's reliable, something you can't exactly say about much of White's recent oddball turns. This is the sound of a rock 'n' roll band trying to reclaim some balance at the end of a decade, and doing a noble job of it.