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Taken from PopMatters (May 20, 2021)

Steady, As It Goes: The Raconteurs' 'Broken Boy Soldiers' Turns 15

The Raconteurs' Broken Boy Soldiers sets itself apart from anything like it, even 15 years later. The band's debut somehow starts two great stories.

by Tony DeGenaro


The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers-Cover
The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers-Cover


A "raconteur" is a storyteller.


As storytellers, The Raconteurs literally make a lyric from their biggest song, "Steady, As She Goes", interesting to read, especially in retrospect: "When you have completed / What you thought you had to do". There's a story (or two, really) to be told about this band, and maybe at the end of those stories, we might come to understand better what it is that Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, Patrick Keeler, and Jack White thought they had to do.


I was 15 years old and in high school when their debut LP, Broken Boy Soldiers, was released 15 years ago. An unofficial rule of being in high school in the Midwest is that your identity can be based on the sport you play, the extracurricular activities you do, who you date, or what you like. People who remember high school fondly seem to have a healthy balance of these categories; as for me, well, I went all-in on music, and nothing sounded better and more exciting (and more comically subversive) than the White Stripes. In 2006, it was harder for a young music fan to consume information about their favorite artists or find obscure, possibly malicious MP3 files alleging to be demos or bootlegs; in other words, unless you were in the Detroit garage rock scene, the idea that Jack White was anything other than 50% of the White Stripes was not ubiquitous knowledge.


This speaks to the two stories the Raconteurs tell. The first-which we will return to in a moment-is the tale of a fleeting band that came from nowhere, with two absolutely spectacular rock and roll records, and vanished just as quickly. The second is that the Raconteurs appeared like a phoenix risen from the exquisite documentation of Third Man Records' ongoing series of vault releases. These collections quadrupled the number of live Raconteurs offerings, digging up demos and pressing into vinyl open mic night performances by Jack White and Brendan Benson from the mid-1990s. Ultimately, this led to them unleashing a new third album and subsequent world tour.


In 2006, however, the immense excitement of Broken Boy Soldiers enveloped me as I lay underneath a full-spread poster (torn out from an issue of Entertainment Weekly) that I anxiously taped to my bedroom ceiling. I wondered: Who are these three other dudes? Do I have to hitch my wagon to this new group? What does it mean for Jack White to "leave" the White Stripes? Obviously, side projects were not new in 2006, but this felt like dangerous waters to tread.


It's hard to remember how the debut sounded back then; yet, it's quite easy to access how Broken Boy Soldiers sounds today, 15 years after its release, as the story of a band who came to handle their guitar-rocking business over the course of three years, vanish, and then rise from the dead a decade after they disappeared. Most importantly, does it still hold up as a confidently told 34-minute tale spread across ten tracks? Well, sit a spell because it's a story I love telling! Let's see if these songs still do everything they thought they needed to.


Steady, As She Goes


What an audacious album opener. You probably heard this song before the record was released (maybe in a Yahoo! Video flash player screening the music video, which featured the gang in go-karts.) Regardless of where you heard it first, you've definitely heard it since.



Hands


Listening to this album is a long and fruitless hunt for the sickest riff because, as a whole, no single song (other than the obvious) jumps out. That's bad curb appeal, but once you get into the tracks, you'll find that "Hands"-among many others-not only encourages both White's virtuosic guitar playing and his harmonies with Benson. Vocally, this isn't the closest to Sgt. Pepper these two get, but it's close.



Broken Boy Solider


This weird third track lets you know that you're not listening to just another alternative rock album. All respect to The Killer's Hot Fuss, but that album doesn't have a bullhorn projecting lyrics, now does it? Honestly, "Broken Boy Soldier" is possibly the greatest thesis statement for White's claim that they have the "best rhythm section in rock and roll".



Intimate Secretary


A definitive song for how The Raconteurs really work together, this song truly dumps out the group's whole bag of tricks: heavy, screamy guitar; brashly affected vocals; Benson's sunny voice; tender acoustic guitar; Lawrence and Keeler's supporting vocals; and even a Led Zeppelin homage in the form of a mandolin.



Together


In another universe, this song would've been the lead single and done well on every FM alternative rock station (and then, inevitably, these guys still disappear). Buried in the middle of the album, "Together" is an immensely underrated slow jam that, fortunately, both White and The Raconteurs keep in heavy rotation.



Level


Another definitive Raconteurs jam that-and I cannot overstate this-was incredible live back in 2006, 2008, 2011, and even 2019. It's big and dumb rock and roll, and these seasoned veterans of the genre absolutely rip on it.



Store Bought Bones


This song can see the future, or at least it shares a sonic palette with The White Stripes' Icky Thump. That makes you think that maybe bass and a second guitar, more keys, and a generally fuller sound isn't such a bad thing after all.



Yellow Sun


In 2006, and having barely heard a Beatles song previously, I latched onto something a reviewer (probably from that same Entertainment Weekly issue) said about Benson and White's Paul & John vibes in songs where they share vocal duties. In hindsight, that's super reductive, but I'll be damned if this song doesn't have some similarities to "Here Comes The Sun"'s breezy sounds and precious lyrics. Dare I say, The Raconteurs do it better?



Call It a Day


I could probably name every Raconteurs song off the top of my head except for this one. Situated on the back half of the album, it gets a little buried, which is a shame. Ten's a good number of songs for an album (nine feels a little too short), so as a piece of adhesive, we must acknowledge "Call It a Day", which sounds more like a Benson solo joint than anything else.



Blue Veins


"Ball & Biscuit" fans had to wonder if this record would deliver an Elephant-era guitar rocker to appease the White Stripes aficionados. Worry not, though, because they totally did. As solid an album closer as "Blue Veins" may be, its best moment is found in the It Might Get Loud documentary, where White showcases the bloodstains all over the guitar from a recent guitar solo.



The Raconteurs were never a novelty act, which is a novelty in and of itself in Jack White's corpus. How about the White Stripes? Duh. What about the Dead Weather? Well, he drums and she sings, so yes! Even Jack White's solo output is laden with novel elements. (Hell, there are two bands and they play songs from his whole songwriting catalog!) With the Raconteurs, though, there is no novelty. For the most part, their status as a supergroup-the only thing truly veering towards novelty act territory-is tragically downplayed. There is no fawning over "the best rhythm section in rock and roll", as White frequently says of Lawrence and Keeler's roots-rock outfit The Greenhornes, nor has Brendan Benson's exceptional run as a singer-songwriter (seven albums deep, two of which are absolute masterpieces) risen above cult fame. It's a shame, really, but that's exactly what makes the Raconteurs so extraordinary: their novel normalcy.


It's hard to say whether or not the basic formula for classic rock was less cool in the late oughts or in 2019 when the band returned, but one thing is for sure: that boring "your dad's record collection" schtick these four dudes did during the era of the Strokes was astonishing and magical. Whether digested 15 years ago or 15 minutes ago, Broken Boy Soldiers sets itself apart from anything else like it-and anything unlike it-as an extraordinary album.


The Raconteurs' debut somehow starts two great stories: one is an epic three-year/ two-album blink-and-you-miss-it moment in alternative rock, and the other is a much longer return-of-the-king championship run that shows how vital their story really is. A decade and a half later, we can only wonder if these guys have completed what they thought they had to do-and hope that they haven't.


Broken Boy Soldiers
The Raconteurs
Third Man Records
16 May 2006




 
 

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