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Help Us Stranger (Third Man)

Consider The Saboteurs/Racontuers and The Black Keys.

Two groups, neither from Nashville originally, but now associated with it, have returned after long hiatus, both often working the archaic, or at least arcane field of the blues. Neither of them needed to come back: they all have other jobs/bands and money is hardly a motivator for the principal writers in each group. But back they are.

Though whether either or both were actually wanted back is another issue – and I don’t mean that in a snarky way; more just recognising that time, and interests, move on, their last appearances were not necessarily huge successes, and a public clamour for more fare was noticeably quiet.

(Does some of this lack of demand have to do with the fact that stupidly, because a group you’ve never heard of in Australia had the name already, The Raconteurs as they are known around the world, are here and only here called The Saboteurs? You’d have to think it’s played a role.)

The Black Keys’ Let’s Rock is mildly rocking, reasonably appealing, mostly clean-sounding, occasionally pop-y 70s-style album, which doesn’t mount a significant argument against the notion that its predecessor, the adequate 2014 album Turn Blue, was not an aberration but rather a full wind down of energy and ideas for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who probably had peaked on Brothers, in 2010.

On the other hand, Help Us Stranger, also a collection which finds its roots in the 1970s, is a reminder that swagger doesn’t have to be boorish and power doesn’t have to sacrifice tune-age. And that the guitar and bass playing Jacks, White and Lawrence, guitarist/co-vocalist Brendan Benson and drummer Patrick Keeler still have something fresh to share.

Riffs spill out, like the ones crowding into the Zeppelin II-esque Don’t Bother Me (one of several songs, not least the cover of Donovan’s Hey Gyp, which highlight the power and swing of Keeler) and the more brutalist Sunday Driver, or the standard bearer one on the opening track Bored And Razed, which is probably more Billy Duffy than Jimmy Page, and the punchy, Texas blues quarter at the heart of What’s Yours Is Mine.

But as ever when Benson is around – and when White pops his top button and grins – there are tunes to butt heads with those riffs, or in the case of the Big Star-glancing, piano-playing Shine The Light On Me, takes the place of the riffs.

Take Now That You’re Gone, which offers a late ‘60s Beatles melody and guitar solo/breakdown to put towards the blues drawl of the lead guitar, and Only Child, where a kind of power pop feel suggests someone might check in here for a future Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack album

Or there’s Help Me Stranger, where a strong hint of beach resort sunshine overlays a snaking urban rhythm, and Live A Lie which channels all its Keith Richards+Mick Taylor dreams into one package but hangs onto a hook just big enough to snare a passing listener.

Neither the rule-restricted White Stripes, nor the rule-breaking solo White, the Saboteurs/Raconteurs feel like a group making it work as they go along. And it does still work.

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