If you wore the same red pants to work every day, you’d want to change things a bit when you got some time off. But Jack White — on hiatus from the trailblazing, color-coordinated White Stripes — has done more than slip out of his fire-engine-hued trousers. In joining with Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence of the Greenhornes and power-pop soloist Brendan Benson to form the Raconteurs (they’d qualify as a supergroup if anyone but White had sold more than a handful of discs), White trades in the art-school blues that made him famous for something less prestigious but potentially a lot more fun: a shot at schlock-rock glory.
From the opening notes of Broken Boy Soldiers — big, bouncy bass notes cribbed from Joe Jackson’s ”Is She Really Going Out With Him?” — it’s clear the Raconteurs are bound by a love of gut-crunching classic-rock riffs, a willingness to steal, and a stoner curiosity that leads them to ponder such urgent questions as, What would a synthesis of Yes and Bad Company sound like? In stretches, their exuberance almost trumps their lack of ambition. ”Hands,” which soars on glossy, Boston-ish power chords, peaks with White and Benson meeting at the top of their ranges for one of those goofy arena-rock-chorus harmonies that’s no less great for being about absolutely nothing. White and Benson trade vocals on most tracks, and obviously enjoy spurring each other on to see who can get the loosest; on ”Intimate Secretary” — or as Bad Company’s lawyer might call it, ”Feel Like Makin’ Love” — Benson trots out a deliciously glam persona, while White hijacks the Black Sabbath bass line of the title track into camp territory and beyond.
It’s nice to hear White break free from the austere, I’m-upholding-a-tradition! formalism of the White Stripes, but the Raconteurs get too promiscuous to have anything like an aesthetic of their own. They float through a variety of sounds and tempos (”Yellow Sun” is their ’60s pop tribute, ”Blue Veins” a sweaty, narcotized take on the Animals) but rarely with any cohesion. When the hooks get scarcer on the CD’s second half, the tension drains away until it feels like rock-band karaoke — though a karaoke band would probably have much sharper lyrics. ”You’ve got to learn to live/And live and learn…or you’ll get burned,” offers Benson on ”Together,” pure wisdom compared to the refrigerator-magnet poetry of ”Intimate Secretary” (”This ringing in my ears won’t stop…. I’ve got a pen but I lost the top”). Combine the dull wordplay with the uneven tone and Soldiers feels indulgent quickly — and that’s saying something for an album that’s just 33 minutes. Consider it a lazily scrawled postcard from a friend on sabbatical, and hope he comes back soon.