Jack White deserves kudos for squeezing his hefty record collection into the pliable ears of kids the world over, informing them of the American South, Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Zep, the Stooges, Detroit, etc. White Stripes records were, in many ways, pop-music history lessons.
To coincide, White learned his media-manipulation skills well, picked his enemies and allies, and hastily took DIY mainstream. He turned the Stripes’ lofty art-house disconnect and shanty-town songcraft into a high-art — but easily merchandised — getup. His guitar primp, perfected pout, and fiercely calculated sense of personal aesthetics thrust him into rarified air; he’s now uttered in sentences alongside Jeff Beck, Dylan, Iggy, and Muddy Waters. He’s a rock star in the classic sense — conflicted, smart, preening, weirdly beautiful, and flawed. But White the guitarist-producer has yet to prove himself a songwriter with real longevity.
White’s running bud and perennial nice-guy Brendan Benson is, on the other hand, a good songwriter, but a bore of sorts. He’s too uninteresting on his own to command any real, career-sustaining attention from listeners. He might have fancied himself a latter-day McCartney or a Graham Nash type, but Benson did everything backward — he went solo before joining the famous band. He’s living proof that penning cranial-gooey, transcendent pop is but a stilt on a four-legged, pop-career platform. Broken Boy Soldiers, Benson’s hushed grace and White’s popping star, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard pop charts and the Raconteurs own Europe.
Broken boy soldiers
(V2 Records/Third Man)
This Benson-White-penned record sounds wonderful, warm, human, and analog — a radio anomaly sandwiched between The Fray and Nickelback. The guitars, bass, and drums are big, fat, and airy. The songs are hit-and-miss though, something one might not expect from Benson’s Beatle booty and White’s histrionic white-blues belt.
In some ways the album’s title begs for our sympathy, as if the band wants us to believe in the rock-star-as-innocent-soldier fable. And White’s often linear vocal lines — mathematical riffs parading as melody — are too stock; hence the flatliner Level. His glum croon on “Blue Veins” — a bluesy slow-boat of an Abbey Road toss-off ushered in on backward guitar — leaves us dozing in an otherwise worthy love-you sentiment.
Still, an Abbey Road throwaway is better than anything on the Hot 100 today. What’s more, Broken Boy’s a proper 10-song rock record that clocks in at around 33 minutes. Are White and Benson the second coming of Lennon and McCartney? Hell, no. But in a 2006 context, it’s a pretty good rock ‘n’ roll album.
- Brian Smith