If you’re looking for a crowded hangout, try Jack White’s Wikipedia page. From fully realized bands (like the Alison Mosshart-fronted Dead Weather) to one-off collaborations (like his duet with Alicia Keys for the James Bond track “Another Way to Die,” or partnering with Danger Mouse and Norah Jones on the Spaghetti Western album “Rome”), White has always kept a full dance card, before and after the White Stripes disbanded in 2011.
But for all of the different hats that he’s worn, it’s White’s tenure as a member of the Raconteurs that has most consistently showcased his myriad talents. Formed in 2005, the band paired White with Michigan solo artist Brendan Benson and garage rockers Jack Lawrence (bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums) of the Greenhornes. On their 2006 debut, “Broken Boy Soldiers,” and its 2008 follow-up, “Consolers of the Lonely,” White and Benson traded off vocals and guitar licks in a blues-tinged, sometimes psychedelic take on classic rock. Then they decided it was time for a break … a long one.
“Help Us Stranger” arrives 11 years after “Consolers” and finds White at a very different place in his career from when the band first started. He’s created what can only be described as a musical empire of record labels, pressing plants and, not incidentally, a bustling solo career that included 2018’s “Boarding House Reach.” There’s but one reason to explain the return of the Raconteurs after such a lengthy absence: it appears Jack White is ready to have some fun again.
From the first notes of opener “Bored and Razed,” it’s clear that the mood on “Help Us Stranger” is an overwhelmingly playful one. You can sense the giddiness on “Razed,” where frenzied guitars carry the moment and the band’s metropolitan muse, Detroit, gets an early shout-out. The track’s tongue-in-cheek title further speaks to the notion that while White and company aren’t positing that these songs should be taken as jokes, there’s no need to be too serious about them either.
It’s probably safe to presume that most reviews of this record will make a special point of highlighting the contributions of Benson. Though he’ll never have the top echelon fame of his bandmate, Benson is just as integral to the Raconteurs as White. Not only does his presence serve as a foil for some of White’s more indulgent tendencies (look no further than the contrast between “Help Us” and White’s sprawling “Boarding House” for additional proof), but Benson’s affinity for more melodic, pop-adjacent tunes gives the Raconteurs an added bit of sparkle.
It’s as though there’s a melting point for Benson and White — a musical temperature that, when reached, allows them to congeal their talents. This heat can be felt across the album, from the call and repeat chorus of stomper “Help Me Stranger” to the dual vocals and rowdy piano at the heart of “Shine the Light on Me.” There are also a few songs that fail to capture the spirit of White and Benson’s partnership. “Don’t Bother Me” is a frenzied affair that relies too heavily on an oversimplified, repetitive hook and “What’s Yours is Mine” is so focused on getting to its mid-song guitar breakdown that it fails to justify the need for one.
Mostly, though, “Help Us” is a simple, effective return to form for fans of White who continue to hold out hope that a new White Stripes album may one day arrive. That prayer isn’t likely to pay dividends, but with the Raconteurs’ latest offering, listeners can at least take solace in the best consolation prize possible. More importantly, this album is timely proof that White may actually be at his best when he’s constrained by the framework of collaboration. “Boarding House” was an eclectic mish-mash of styles that yielded few gems but revealed White’s willingness to summit any sonic peak he sets his mind on. The Raconteurs’ latest leads one to wonder if his future Everests would best be attempted not as solo ascents, but as part of a team.
There is never cause to encourage an artist to experiment less, but in White’s case, his alliance with Benson remains his most viable avenue for continuing to mine the Detroit garage rock sound that first brought the White Stripes to prominence. Toss in the exceptional work of Lawrence and Keeler, and you’ve got a group that may benefit from the prominence of one member but truly makes its mark as a team. It’s impossible to know what White will do next, but as his list of releases and collaborators continues to grow, let’s hope there’s always room for the Raconteurs in his plans.