The Black Keys, Let’s Rock” ****
The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger ****
If rock is dead, that memo did not reach Nashville, where these albums were recorded. And Detroit – the Raconteurs’ real home, where singer-guitarists Jack White and Brendan Benson each grew up in the local garage-punk ruckus – has always ignored that message. “I’ve been riding this thing out since I was eight years old,” Benson sings on Help Us Stranger, in “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” which starts in Seventies-arena-ballad distress but jumps to a thumping, electric vengeance as he and White crow “I’m here right now/I’m not dead yet” like a super-caffeinated Queen. The Black Keys, in turn, affirm their continuing mission in the title of their first album in five years. Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bring a heightened purism too, emphasizing the power-duo force of their early records amid the riffing storm in “Eagle Birds” and “Go.” The effect: like 2003’s Thickfreakness in higher fidelity.
The Raconteurs – White, Benson, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler – bust into their first studio album in eleven years like a street gang itching for battle, rapidly building to the power-chord fanfare and shiny vocal chrome in “Bored and Razed.” The buzzing-bee tone of the main guitar lick recalls White’s attack mode in the White Stripes, but the Raconteurs are at once denser and more agile. Benson’s broad instrumental role and straighter, richer singing – next to White’s high-pitched agitation – add a stack of dynamics here: the synth-lined shadows of “Only Child”; the android-choir harmonies in “Sunday Driver,” like the Beatles imitating Kraftwerk; the Sixties-R&B melodrama in “Now That You’re Gone.” Lawrence and Keeler swing between brawny funk, slicing strut and, in “Don’t Bother Me,” high, straight speed like a runaway Grand Funk Railroad. In the Donovan cover “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness),” the tight rolling turbulence suggests one of those crack marching bands from the movie Drumline.
“Let’s Rock” is in the emotional tradition of most Sixties garage-rock: the singer on a bummer, the band making a noise to raise him up. “You get low like a valley/Then high like a bird in the sky,” Auerbach sings in “Lo/Hi,” certifying the extremes in a wrenching soprano-fuzz guitar break. His plaintive vocals are often closer to country-soul, haunted by betrayal and the slippery slope of commitment in “Tell Me Lies” and “Breaking Down,” the latter lined with electric sitar like a 1969 Elvis Presley session. But in Carney’s drumming, Auerbach has the perfect anchor and drive for his freak-rock twang and moral punch. “Every Little Thing” opens like a spasm of lead-guitar nerves from Led Zeppelin II, then drops to something darker, the Black Keys holding their gunpowder until the chorus: “Every little thing that you do/Is always gonna come back to you.”
The chattering classes will no doubt whip up some blood-rival gossip to explain the near-simultaneous release of these albums. Help Us Stranger and Let’s Rock are simply great records from very different bands coming from the same ideals: Rock is a living thing, and guitars can be your best friends in the war on jive.