"The one thing I hate is being labeled a side project," Jack White complained to the Austin Chronicle in August 2006, mere hours before the Raconteurs served as the house band for the MTV Video Music Awards. "We've invested too much time and effort into this band to be considered a side project."
Moments later, songwriting cohort Brendan Benson echoed White's sentiments with the same sort of call-and-response delivery that defines much of the Raconteurs' rock 'n' roll. "We're very serious about trying to forge an identity as a band separate from the Greenhornes and that sort of thing," he said. "How would we even play a White Stripes song anyways?"
Thankfully, that question remains unanswered. Since forming the Raconteurs in 2005, White and Benson have never attempted to replicate their past successes, instead assimilating and accentuating each other's strengths. The enigmatic, engaging White Stripes frontman lays down thundering blues guitar and bewitching vocals, while Benson, conversely, bears a sharper sense of melody and pop dynamics. The duo is rounded out by bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler of Cincinnati-based garage-rock revivalists the Greenhornes, whom White had previously tapped as the rhythm section for Loretta Lynn's 2004 comeback, Van Lear Rose.
The Raconteurs' 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldier, was recorded at Benson's East Grand Studio in Detroit and marched like a seven-nation army, split evenly between vintage psych nuggets and Benson's melodramatic ballads. Yet the album was a bit undeveloped, a mere snapshot of the budding group's potential. "What you hear on the album is the idea for a song, while the songs themselves are always evolving and changing as we grow as a band," Benson explained at the time. "The record captures the band in a very early stage, which was important to us because we'll never have the opportunity to sound like that again."
Relocating to Nashville, the Raconteurs cut their recent follow-up, Consolers of the Lonely, which was rushed to stores following its completion in the first week of March. The album displays an immediate focus, beginning with the caterwauling one-two crunch of opener "Consoler of the Lonely" and first single "Salute Your Solution," which find White and Benson ricocheting leads with sweltering fervor.
Freed from the self-imposed confines of the Stripes' façade, White explores his eccentricities like never before, adding pixelated organ lines and scorching guitar solos to "Hold Up" and delving into Zeppelin folk ("Old Enough"), and dustbowl blues ("Top Yourself"), while the Benson-led epic "The Switch and the Spur" mixes Morricone spaghetti-Western noir with the epic progressions of the Moody Blues. The rendition of Terry Reid's "Rich Kid Blues" tops the band's take on Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" for the strongest cover in the Raconteurs' canon.
Back in 2006, White warned, "We don't ever want people to expect anything from us. We've never played the same set twice, and you never know what we're going to do next." Consolers of the Lonely doesn't quite equal the sum of the Raconteurs' creative parts but remains the strongest and most diverse album from any of these players in years, which should be enough to finally shake the side-project label.