Broken Boy Soldiers

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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 'n' roll star in the classic sense — conflicted, smart, preening, weirdly beautiful and flawed. But White the guitarist-producer has yet to prove himself as White the songwriter, one with real longevity.

And White's hometown 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've 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.

Benson's hushed grace and White's popping star debuted last week at No. 7 on the Billboard pop charts. And the Raconteurs own Europe.

This Benson-White-penned record (with drummer Jack Lawrence and bassist Patrick Keeler from the Greenhornes) 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.

"Intimate Secretary" is the album's centerpiece and lives up to the Benson-White hype; White's distorted upper-register talk-back vocal colors Benson's lead swimmingly — the tune recalls early Move, but with dollops of soaring synth, acoustic and distorted guitars, Beatle drone and bewildering wordplay. And the album's hit "Steady as She Goes" is above-board sing-song power pop, from its Joe Jackson nod and the word "She" in its title and chorus to White's seemingly autobiographical turn of finding redemption in a mundane, married existence.

But there's a shortage of kicks and thrills here, of outright rock 'n' roll abandon. Call it artfully detached classic rock ("Store Bought Bones" is propped up by a gnarly organ run that'd make Jon Lord wink). The Joe Walsh riff that sparks up the Benson-sung "Hands" — a mawkish nod to a lover's remedial powers — stalls midway under the weight of its own rock thud and Benson's sleepy drone, awakened only by Beatle harmonies. (Benson's low and reedy Peter Perrett croon works on the lovely "Yellow Sun" and the wan "Call it a Day" — the latter a breakup sketch that's open to sundry Detroit interpretations.)

The title track, in its glorious late '60s psych hum is blemished by White's pompous whoop, a Robert Plant affectation gone awry, particularly on the wince-worthy "I'm child and man and child again" bit.

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. (Well, White did totter off to Nashville, leaving a trail of blood, or something, in his wake. Rolling Stone: "Do you miss Detroit?" Jack White: "Fuck no.") 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 a 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 is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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