|Photo courtesy of Shane Devon|
Bechet could not dream of having a public worthier of his genius than the dark-faced woman in the white apron who appears from time to time at a little door behind the platform. She's probably the cook, a stout woman in her 40s with a tired face but big, avid eyes. With her hands resting flat on her stomach, she leans toward the music with a religious ardor. Gradually, her worn face is transfigured, her body moves to a dance rhythm; she dances while standing still, and peace and joy have descended on her.
She has cares, and she's had troubles, but she forgets...
She has cares, and she's had troubles, but she forgets...
Without a past or future she is completely happy: the music justifies her difficult life, and the world is justified for her.
Those are the words of Simone de Beauvoir describing a performance by Jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as quoted by Joel Dinerstein in his book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America. I identify intensely with that woman and her response to Bechet's playing, and I hope that people reading this are able to understand it, too. Because that's what music can do, and has so often done for me.
I don't know about you, but life in Icky Trump-era America is wringing me out, leaving me exhausted and depressed and cynically demoralized. Throw some family issues on top of that and I just find it so hard to summon up joy and excitement over anything anymore. Last fall's announcement of a new record from the Raconteurs should've, a few years ago would've, had me bouncing off the walls and posting countdowns on Facebook. But it didn't and the fact that it didn't made me even more sad. I know, first world problems...
But thank God or god or whatever's above, Help Us Stranger came out on Friday and it's exactly the medicine I needed. I downloaded it from Amazon at 6:00am so I could listen in the car on the way to work and my commute was filled with tears, laughter, and much beating on the steering wheel in time with the drums. First time I've ever wished for more traffic to slow down the drive.
I'm going to insert here the same disclaimer from an early post I wrote about Jack White's last album, Boarding House Reach: "I am not a critic and this is not a review. I am a fan. As such, I can sometimes be critical, but I am not a critic. Because my attachment to the music I love springs from emotional, visceral responses, I don't write "reviews". I can make objective judgements, but for the most part my descriptions of new music are purely an expression of my impressions, feelings, and thoughts." So let's press on with the impressions, shall we?
Right off the bat, I have to say that the Raconteurs did the same thing with this album that Jack did with Boarding House Reach-- They chose the least interesting songs on the record to release as singles. Not one of those songs is bad, let me clarify that, they're all hook-laden ear-worms that I listened to on repeat for days. Sunday Driver has nifty guitar squawls and boisterous vocals from Jack White. Now That You're Gone is Brendan Benson's slow-burning, easy-to-sing-along-with exploration of romantic desertion. Help Me Stranger opens with solo vocals from Jack Lawrence that've been equalizer-tweaked to sound like an old cowboy song, before launching into a bouncy duet between Jack and Brendan. And their cover of Donovan's Hey Gyp is just plain fun, with Brendan's harmonica and Patrick Keeler's propulsive drums.
And yet... Sunday Driver kept reverberating in my brain like a mash-up of Hold Up and Five On The Five from Consolers of the Lonely. Help Me Stranger and Hey Gyp reminded me of the back and forth I love from Level, off of Broken Boy Soldiers. And Now That You're Gone could've slid right into Consolers as if it'd been written 11 years ago. As I listened to these songs over and over, I began to wonder, even worry a bit, if the band was going to give us anything new, or just essentially re-hashes of what they'd done before. That would've been enough for a lot of fans, I think, especially the ones that were aghast and turned off by Jack's experimentation with Boarding House Reach. I could easily imagine him going back to basics, as it were, in an attempt to appease and win back some of those fans. Though I hoped to hell he wouldn't. It didn't seem in his wheelhouse to do something so... expected.
And that's one of the main things I love about him-- He does what's unexpected. The stuff that's likely to appeal to the masses are generally not the songs that will end up on my list of favorites. I want stuff that surprises me, that makes me scratch my head and wonder what the heck? at the same time that I'm grinning in amazement. So I was thrilled when, just like BHR, the songs on Help Us Stranger that I had not yet heard were the ones that blew the top of my head off as I listened to the full album for the first time.
The only song on the record that gives me any sort of pause is the one that leads it off, Bored and Razed. Brendan Benson himself nailed my issue with it in an interview with Zan Rowe of Double J when he said he was conflicted about his part because he felt his entrance into the song was weak. Jack's lyrics are so biting and manic and full of word-play ("Rolling a juke joint box in the corner") that they emphasize that weakness, they completely overpower Brendan's fluffy lines about missing a girl. The Racs have made disparate lyrics work before, as in Consoler of the Lonely, but to my ears this song should be more Salute Your Solution than Consoler. That aside, the rollicking musical pace sets a great tone for what's to come.
Lyrically, pseudo-title track Help Me Stranger is like a comforting, reassuring arm around the shoulder compared to some of the other tunes on the album. This record is full bitterness, agitation, loneliness, and bewilderment. So that first line in Help Me, "If you call me I'll come running/And you can call me anytime", is the one to come back to when lines in other songs hit too close to home.
Brendan and Jack each have a pair of subdued, pensive tracks on the album, starting with Brendan's Only Child. "Only child, the prodigal son/Has come back home again to get his laundry done." It's a lovely and yearning, softly acoustic song... until a buzzing synthesizer slides into the bridge to give it a jarring electronic tone that you might think would be completely out of place but instead elevates the song into something... unexpected. There we go! And then it's back to loveliness with a short finishing interlude of drums and piano.
And then comes Don't Bother Me. I immediately sat up in the car and began grinning like a loon. Now this was more like it! It's angry and biting and rampaging and seems to speak directly to exactly that thing that's been a weight on all our lives for the last two years.
The way you look in the mirror
You're your biggest admirer
All your clicking and swiping
All your groping and griping
In another time, it'd just be directed to annoying narcissistic assholes in general, but right now, it's a raging fuck you to snarl along and head-bang with in cathartic glee. The only problem with this song is that, even when turned up to full volume, it's not loud enough.
The opening Oooohs and piano of Shine The Light On Me sound more Queen than Raconteurs and coming on the tail of Don't Bother Me it made my head spin a little bit. And then Jack comes in with his most plaintive voice, singing of trying to understand the frustrating mysteries of love and life. "But we don't need to know why the flowers grow/Let's just be happy they can". This was the moment when my eyes filled with tears while still grinning ear to ear. By this point it was clear that this album was not going to be a repeat of anything, that it was going to be full of new and different. And I got so excited.
In a time when it feels like there's a concerted effort being made to diminish the stigma of depression, Brendan's Somedays (I Don't Feel Like Trying) could easily become a rallying cry for those who suffer. It's so tear-jerkingly relateable, and yet ends with such determined strength. As a Raconteurs song, it's got a familiar feel, and yet has brand new guitar tones and, like Shine The Light, goes in a lyrical direction the band has not explored before. There's no metaphor or pop cleverness here, instead it's direct and candid and moving.
And then come Hey Gyp, Sunday Driver, and Now That You're Gone, all of which I'd come to know so well over the last handful of months. Of the original two singles, I initially preferred the music of Jack's Sunday Driver and the lyrics of Brendan's Now That You're Gone. That took me aback a bit, as Jack's lyrics were what got me into him in the first place, and the lyrics on Brendan's solo records have never grabbed me much at all. And this was a surprise through the whole album-- Jack's contributions to Help Us Stranger excite the hell out of me, the unusual sounds and instruments that seem to be carry-overs from the experimentation of Boarding House Reach, the variety of his vocal deliveries from soft to soaring to spitting, the wit and word-play I've always loved. But Brendan steps out of from behind the glare of Jack's shadow and holds his own in a way that he did not on the first two Raconteurs albums. That alone makes me listen to this album carefully, to hear him in a way that I haven't before.
Live A Lie is two minutes, twenty seconds of the sort of bouncy pop-punk I rocked out to in high school, and would be a perfect cover song for one of my favorite new bands, Radkey. It's going to be a blast to hear live. And What's Yours Is Mine almost sounds as if it's the Raconteurs covering the Dead Weather-- I can easily hear Alison Mosshart in my head, sparring with Jack on Brendan's parts. This song could have come straight off the Dead Weather's Sea of Cowards, and the fact that the Racs did it instead is completely quirky and yet even more effective.
This band knows how to end an album dramatically, first with Blue Veins on Broken Boy Soldiers and then Carolina Drama on Consolers of the Lonely. They do it again with Thoughts and Prayers, which takes its wandering time, as if the painful ideas Jack sings so softly about are exploring an old house full of rooms of different kinds of music, trying to find bits and pieces to accompany them on their journey. There's duetting acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle, synthesizer and, most affecting, a B-bender guitar, Jack's latest musical toy. It's a gorgeous mish-mash of a song that grabs my heart and mind in a velvet-gloved iron grip.
I used to look up at the sky
Up at the beautiful blue sky
But now the earth has turned to grey
There's got to be a better way
To contact God and hear her say
There are reasons why it is this way
And the theme of that song speaks to an overriding element of this album-- It reflects the maturity of a band 11 years older than when they last recorded together. The music is more confident, but the lyrics are lonelier and more contemplative, even searching. The members of the band are close to middle age and as a middle aged fan, it makes these songs speak to me in a way the last two albums didn't. Not better, just different. They're more reflective of where I'm at in my own life.
In a few interviews leading up to the release, Jack confessed to feeling a Lennon-McCartney vibe in his and Brendan's song-writing together. As is so often the case with him, this was a hint leading to a bit of hilarious humor and brilliant trickery-- Hidden behind its lenticular version of the regular album cover, the Vault subscription copy of Help Us Stranger contains an easter egg of a Beatles "Butcher Cover" parody (pictured at the top of the post). Of course, Brendan is Lennon and Jack is McCartney. When news of this popped up on social media within hours of people receiving the record on Friday, I began giggling at my desk at work and could not stop. I was just so goddamned happy, and grateful to be happy. I should've known that I can always count on Jack (and Brendan, LJ, and Patrick) to give me what I needed.