The Raconteurs, “Help Us Stranger” (Third Man Records)
Jack White’s recent solo albums have been wildly erratic, as if he were trying too hard to find an identity outside the White Stripes. One of his side projects, the Raconteurs, made a couple of quick albums just as the Stripes were dissolving, circa 2006-08, and then went silent. Marking their return, “Help Us Stranger” folds White’s outsized personality into a dozen songs in a way that suggests he feels most at home in the context of a band, especially one as strong as this.
He shares the songwriting load with Brendan Benson, and though they are often typecast as opposites — White as the bluesy guitar slinger, Benson as the power-pop craftsman — they blend their approaches seamlessly. There’s Benson shouting atop the ripping guitars on “Live a Lie,” while White sounds hopeful and tender on the piano ballad “Shine the Light on Me.”
The latter is indicative of the subtle twists in the best of these songs: the Queen-like vocal harmonies at the outset, the psychedelic swirl that brings it to a close. This album brims with unapologetic rock songs that mine ’60s and ’70s signifiers without getting stuck there. Yet it’s the ballads that give “Help Us Stranger” its unexpected emotional heft. The Raconteurs perform July 15 at the Armory in Minneapolis.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
Willie Nelson, “Ride Me Back Home” (Legacy)
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, “Turn Off the News, Build a Garden” (Fantasy)
“I’ve got one more song to write,” Willie sings near the end of his new album, making clear that he is not content to coast to the finish. If the 86-year-old country legend is not writing much these days — the album contains only four originals, one from 1971 — he and longtime producer/writing partner Buddy Cannon know how to put together a cohesive set. Working with his usual spare arrangements, colored by Mickey Raphael’s mournful harmonica, Nelson delivers excellent versions of songs by, among others, Guy Clark, Mac Davis and Skip Denenberg (“Nobody’s Listening”).
Willie also can be heard singing and picking his trusty “Trigger” on his son Lukas’ ambitious and more stylistically diverse album. Promise of the Real, who have worked as Neil Young’s backing band, present a big, full-bodied sound that encompasses ringing, Tom Petty-ish rock and swaggering country-rock as well as Orbison-esque pop and down-home rootsiness. Somehow it all hangs together, if precariously at times. Lukas has a dry, reedy voice that resembles his father’s. But he also has inherited some of Willie’s old outlaw spirit, that urge to not play it safe and to pursue his own musical instincts. Willie will play Aug. 2 at Target Center while Promise of the Real appears Sept. 25 at the Varsity Theater.
NICK CRISTIANO, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Machine Gun Kelly, “Hotel Diablo”
• The Soft Cavalry, “The Soft Cavalry”
• Jesca Hoop, “Stonechild”
• Joey Cape, “Let Me Know When You Give Up”