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POP ALBUM REVIEWS

At boys' poker night, the art of raconteurs

May 16, 2006|Ann Powers; Randy Lewis; Steve Appleford

Raconteurs

"Broken Boy Soldiers"

(Third Man/V2 Records)

* * * *

It's not easy having Jack White as your backup singer. A legend on the order of a Loretta Lynn can handle the heat; a laid-back talent such as indie singer-songwriter Brendan Benson has a much greater challenge. On this debut by the Raconteurs, the new combo partnering Benson with the White Stripes auteur over the athletic rhythm section of Cincinnati's Greenhornes, the mood occasionally grows wobbly under the weight of White's charisma (and his keening tenor).

But White is working hard to temper his narcissism in this archivally minded garage band, and his self-regulation helps Benson re-emerge from the heady murk, his bantering wit and pop smarts intact.

Because of Jack's fair play, "Broken Boy Soldiers" doesn't have the startling force of a White Stripes disc; a highly skilled rock revivalist effort, it outclasses, but doesn't blow away, such peers as Wolfmother and Queens of the Stone Age.

The songs zing with the excitement of two music nerds caught up in a game of "Top This!" -- they shift from neo-psychedelia to three-chord raunch to progressive blues on the turn of a reference point. Confident kids Jack Lawrence (on bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums) guide White and Benson through their changes, preventing White from overcompensating, while kicking Benson in the pants. The title track comes close to Stripes-style opera, but surrounded by two sunny Benson melodies, it's more interlude than exorcism.

The Raconteurs' comprehensible, quality rock clarifies the influence of the White Stripes. That project takes White deep into his weedy psyche, with drummer Meg White acting more as a witness than a full partner, and running rampant there, he's reconstructed rock's history in his own image. A guy might let himself go that crazy in front of his (ex) wife, but not in front of his poker club. That's what the Raconteurs are to White so far -- a great place for him to refine his hand.

-- Ann Powers

Snow Patrol

"Eyes Open" (A&M/Interscope)

* * *

With thickly distorted, deeply rumbling guitars blazing, the U.K. band comes roaring out of the gate on its fourth album, intent to hammer home the point there's more to it than the Coldplay-like romanticism of its 2004 breakthrough single, "Run."

Yet following the two opening tracks, "You're All I Have" and "Hands Open," which pack more of the energy of the group's energetic live shows, singer-lyricist Gary Lightbody is back at his most openhearted in "Chasing Cars," another grandly melancholy plea for emotional connection.

He certainly knows how to mourn a lost love, lamenting the errors he's committed in "Set the Fire to the Third Bar," a duet with Martha Wainwright. Nobody's likely to question his sincerity wishing an ex well as he sings, in "You Could Be Happy":

More than anything I want to see you girl

Take a glorious bite out of the whole world

You should be happy no matter what.

The 11 songs on "Eyes Open" follow a loose arc through considerably fraught romantic terrain, leading fittingly enough to the album's closer, "The Finish Line," in which Lightbody sings hopefully of using the knowledge he's gained about himself and relationships to start afresh. Sounds like a reasonably clear-eyed vision.

-- Randy Lewis

Hoobastank

"Every Man for Himself" (Island)

* *

Pop craftsmanship has its place, but rock 'n' roll does require the occasional fresh idea to stay interesting. Hoobastank has little guidance to offer on this matter.

The band from Agoura Hills has a rock sound bright and faceless, has been rewarded with heavy radio rotation and platinum sales, and sees no reason to change now. There have been many hits, but the big break was 2004's "The Reason," a love ballad aimed at your prom night.

Hoobastank's newest album has more of the same, mingled with some energetic, inoffensive, mostly forgettable harder rocking tunes. Look for it all on the pop airwaves.

There are more messages of searching and yearning and budding self-awareness safe enough for Radio Disney. One exception is "Inside of You," an earnest double-entendre and the dull musings of a horny dude trying to understand some distant girl:

What do I have to do to get inside of you? ...

I love the way you move when I get....

With the help of producer Howard Benson, the band does enjoy a certain polish, peaking with rich layers of flute, trumpet and acoustic guitar on "More Than a Memory." And guitarist Dan Estrin gets up an impressive head of steam during a fiery solo on "If I Were You," but it's quickly gone. More typical are the bloodless, twangy riffs of "Look Where We Are." The answer: all over the radio and nowhere else.

-- Steve Appleford

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed are in stores.

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