It's tragically easy to grow tired of modern pop music. Ever been to a show and wondered why the band stuck so rigidly to the formula already laid out on their studio albums? I have. Ever realized halfway through a performance that sounds you thought the band was making were prerecorded? I have. Ever turned off your radio for two months and felt like you weren't missing anything new? I have.
Now I'm not one of those "it sucks because it's popular" people. Appealing to preteens and midlifers alike isn't what makes a lot of pop music boring, but a lack of experimentation does. To appeal to the largest possible group, one must avoid frightening or confusing them. Unfortunately, this often means dumbing oneself down. If you give them something they've never seen before, they're likely not to eat it. That's why pizza is loved the world over and escargot is not - snails in garlic butter just plain scare the shit out of some people.
The Raconteurs definitely don't scare anyone, but they've developed a sound with broad-spectrum appeal and it comes from smartening up, not dumbing down.
The Raconteurs have two studio releases under their belts to date, both released in the past few years, both immensely popular. Even if you haven't ever heard the name Raconteurs, chances are if you have a radio you've heard at least one of their songs. Last summer I burned out hard on "Steady, As She Goes," having listened to it on the car radio no less than 15,000 times, and almost as many times in my own living room. But that's pop music – take a catchy song and replay it through Clear Channel until the audience wishes they'd never heard it in the first place. There isn't really anything out of the ordinary about "Steady," but I suppose that's why it gets airtime on the teenybopper and suitable-for-waiting-rooms radio stations.
But as is the case with all good albums, a song out of context belies the quality of the album as a single work of art. "Steady, As She Goes" may be aggravatingly memorable on its own, but its only the opening to a greater work, like the first chapter in a book. That first Raconteurs album, "Broken Boy Soldiers," is straight up, back to basics rock and roll, reminiscent at times of such varied artists as The Beatles and Black Sabbath, and everything in between. It's catchy, it's bluesy, it's heavy, it's angry and yet carefree, and it's been a regular in my CD player since the album was released. What the album is not is groundbreaking – just guitar, drums, bass, piano and vocals. Honestly, any song could have been played on the radio and would have fit right in.
So, why the love? Am I not a hypocrite for decrying the genre that is pop music, and then reveling in the glow of some of pop music's brightest stars? Possibly so, but pop music also gave us The Beatles, and no one doubts that John, Paul, George, and Ringo deserve their laurels. The Raconteurs, like The Beatles, play pop music as it should be. Every song is thoughtfully crafted, every word is intelligently and carefully chosen, and there are no bells and whistles, no meaningless thrills and frills, no tabloid worthy conflicts of character, sappy lyrics or weepy self-pity. Just good old-fashioned guitar, drums, bass, piano and vocals.
Unlike The Beatles, who worked their musical experimentation in the studio, The Raconteurs prefer to experiment on stage, checking the pop music sensibilities at the door. In person, everything is louder. Their guitars are more distorted, their drums more thunderous, their bass heavier, and their solos more epic and towering than could ever be captured in the studio. The live performance bares little resemblance to the album, and as near as I can tell, this is the essence of Jack White.
I saw The Raconteurs for the second time last Monday night at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, CO, and it was just as loud as I hoped it would be. For some people, The Raconteurs answer the hypothetical question of what The White Stripes would sound like as a "full" band with bass and an extra guitar. In some ways, this is fair question, since Jack White's style of guitar and rock star demeanor on stage attract attention no matter what setting he is in, and its tempting to think of him as the leader. But the Raconteurs are more than just "Jack White's other band," they are a unique entity unto themselves, fronted by the double threat that is Brendan Benson AND Jack White. The duo write all the band's songs together, switch off playing lead and rhythm guitar, contribute vocals equally, and probably deserve to be mentioned among the echelon of famous duos that includes Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, and Page and Plant. With his smooth, melodic style of lead guitar and emotionally charged voice, Benson is the perfect foil for Jack White, whose guitar work is as sharp and fierce as is his tongue, and the contrast between their methods is part of what makes The Raconteurs so exciting. White and Benson also have the good fortune of being backed by the equally talented, though unfortunately less noticed, drum and bass rhythmic duo of Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence, making the band a powerful force from all angles.
Many of the songs played Monday night were from the new Raconteurs album, "Consolers of the Lonely," which was released with very little notice. Several songs from their first album were included in the setlist, including a hard-rocking, drawn out version of "Steady, As She Goes," a haunting rendition of "Blue Veins," and a twangy delta-blues reprisal of "Store Bought Bones," perhaps the most metal-esque song on "Broken Boy Soldiers." Midway through the show, Jack White, who, incidentally, uses a completely different set of guitars when playing with the Raconteurs than he does when playing with The White Stripes, brought out his new toy – a hollow body electric with three humbucking pickups and a microphone custom mounted into the side. This is all part of the experimentation: simple tools, often old-school noise making toys, used to create new sounds on stage without the use of synthesizers, pre-recordings, or fancy modern technology. Tom Morello is more famous for this sort of thing, but Jack White could probably teach him a thing or two.
And the best part was: the rock never stopped. They came on strong with "Consoler of the Lonely," the first and title track off the new album, and went out even stronger with "Carolina Drama," the last song off the new album. There was no pause in the energy, no opportunity to relax, no time to let the ears and throat heal. Even during their brief exodus from the stage, the atmosphere in the auditorium was highly charged, and when the band returned for their sizable encore, which might as well have been a second set, the audience exploded back into the scene as if the break had only been the eye of the hurricane. Pop music or no, The Raconteurs rocked hard enough to make nearly any skeptic reexamine their opposition to things radio-friendly, because as it turns out, every now and then the mainstream his it right on.
To see more photos from this show, please visit the Gallery.
For more information on Pop Music, consult your local library.
Coming up next: An Evening with Hot Tuna! Stay tuned.