Raconteurs produce rock ’n’ roll alchemy

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      Without even pausing to think about it, Brendan Benson describes the Raconteurs as one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened to him. And, evidently unconcerned about putting words in their mouths, the singer-guitarist says the same holds true for two of his three bandmates, namely bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, both of whom also play in long-running indie-rockers the Greenhornes.

      What gets him going is the question of how life changed for him after the release of the Raconteurs’ 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers. Laughing on the line from his adopted home of Nashville, Benson says, “It was really different from what I was used to, for sure. And I think I can speak for the rhythm section—Patrick and L. J. [Lawrence]—as well. For one thing, we were selling records finally, and playing bigger places. But what’s been best about doing this is that it’s been so fun. It’s literally been one of the best times in my life.”

      In + Out

      Brendan Benson sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

      On making Consolers of the Lonely : “The first record we did in a week or two. This one I think we did in two months. I think we put a little more thought into it, and a little more care. Maybe that’s why some people have said that it’s too thought-out, which blows my mind. Since when do you chastise or punish an artist for caring about what they do?”

      On prog rock: “I was talking about this with some friends last night, and we decided that being accused of playing prog rock was almost like a compliment. It’s kind of like saying your music is too intelligent.”

      On starting the tour cycle for Consolers : “We’re doing two nights in Nashville—we really wanted to start out here, and the Mercy [Lounge], which is this really small venue, is the only place that we could come up with that was cool and fun. I hope it won’t be uncomfortable for people, but it will probably be sweaty and packed. Right after that, we play Vancouver. We love Vancouver. It’s so fun to play there—it’s a really great place.”

      Benson’s enthusiasm—which comes through extra loud and clear when he talks about the Raconteurs’ just-released sophomore album, Consolers of the Lonely—isn’t likely to get a lot of jaws dropping. Thanks to the involvement of a certain singer-guitarist named Jack White, Broken Boy Soldiers was one of the most hyped discs of ’06, hitting the Top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K. After a decade of going it solo in tiny clubs, Benson suddenly found himself nominated for Grammys, playing legendary festivals like Reading and Lollapalooza, and generally being treated like an A-list rock star. Forget mini reviews in Magnet: his songs were suddenly landing him fawning spreads in major music glossies. But as swell as all that might be, what thrills Benson most about being in the Raconteurs is that he’s now part of a gang.

      “I never intended to be a solo artist,” he says candidly. “I never wanted to be one, and I still don’t want to be one. I mean, it’s weird and it’s lonely. And when you step out onto the stage it’s just you, Brendan Benson. There’s no character anymore—it’s just you. In the Raconteurs, we can sort of live out the fantasy of being someone else. Every group that I ever loved sort of had these personas where they seemed to be living out their childhood fantasies of being, I dunno, rock gods.”

      Fittingly, then, there are moments on Consolers of the Lonely where the Raconteurs sound like rock ’n’ roll immortality is their all-consuming goal. As evidenced by the double-barrelled garage pop of “Hold Up” and the distortion-swamped Nuggets rawker “Five on the Five”, the group is more than ready to drop the clutch and stomp on the accelerator. What’s just as striking, though, is that this time out the Raconteurs were willing to indulge every idea they came up with, no matter how far-out. Blaring mariachi horns and depth-charge piano colour the Tex-Mex acid-duster “The Switch and the Spur”, while funktastic ’70s keyboards and Appalachian fiddles weave in and out of the paisley-pop-tinted “Old Enough”. Whether dabbling in amphetamine-jacked Memphis soul (“Top Yourself”), marmalade-skies piano-rock (“You Don’t Understand Me”), or Gothic Americana murder balladry (“Carolina Drama”), the Raconteurs prove themselves to be scarily accomplished alchemists.

      As critically praised as Broken Boy Soldiers was, in hindsight it’s obvious that the songwriting team of Benson and White hadn’t begun to show what it was capable of. But even though Consolers of the Lonely is guaranteed to place on 2008’s best-of-the-year lists, Benson notes that not everyone gets it.

      “I don’t read reviews too much, but I’ve heard that they are pretty divided, where people either love it or hate it,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing: at least people are talking about it. Recently—and I shouldn’t even repeat this—but someone said something about it sounding like a prog-rock record. I think that’s the kind of description you might hear when someone is at a loss—like when they can’t get their head around it. Personally, I dare anyone to try and pigeonhole this record.”

      If the Raconteurs seem to possess a self-assurance that was only hinted at two years ago, that’s to be expected. As much as the group’s lineup has stayed the same, Benson suggests that there have been big changes since the release of Broken Boy Soldiers—including the fact that the Raconteurs went into Consolers with plenty of live experience as a band, something they had none of before the release of their debut. Recording in an actual studio, as opposed to at home, didn’t hurt either; in addition to being wickedly tight, the group somehow sounds more marauding than the White Stripes on Icky Thump. But what comes through most is that the four long-time friends seem to be having such a full-on blast that Broken Boy Soldiers seems almost cautious in comparison.

      “That’s the Raconteurs in a nutshell—having a blast,” Benson raves. “It’s funny—Jack [White] will be the last to admit that. He’s got a problem with—and I say this tongue-in-cheek—admitting that it’s fun. He takes it very seriously and is very passionate about what he does. But it is fun, and I think that’s what motivated us to make another record.

      “This started out as an experiment,” he continues, “where we had no idea whether it would work out. We were all friends, but when you start touring and the stakes are higher, sometimes friendships get strained. Luckily, though, it all worked out.”

      So much so that the Raconteurs suddenly no longer seem like a Jack White side project, but a group of equals just starting to hit the peak of their powers. Although Benson doesn’t say it, you just know that has to feel incredible.

      The Raconteurs play the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (April 20).