December 6, 2008
Country crossovers have been getting a really bad rep recently. The tension is nothing new, of course – only the late John Denver could claim to have his name set aflame on a CMA telecast – but between three seasons of Gone Country, the recent glut of pop veterans snatching up major Nashville record deals, and many of the genre’s mainstream acts themselves sounding more ‘Hanson’ than ‘Haggard,’ genre-hopping has practically become the new norm. The resulting cynicism of critics and fans alike is a real shame, but given the climate, you can hardly blame a country lover for forgetting that artists from other realms sometimes manage to dabble in Ye Olde Twang with reverence and ingenuity instead of commercial cunning, that such outings occasionally produce solid gold over mere dollars.
But make no mistake here: Jack White is not Jessica Simpson, and The Raconteurs are not Bon Jovi. Best-known as one half of enigmatic alternative duo The White Stripes, White has racked up country points in recent years by producing and guesting on one of the decade’s most acclaimed albums (Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose), offering sincere praise of the Nashville community he currently calls home, and even reportedly contributing to an upcoming album of lost Hank Williams songs also featuring Alan Jackson and Lucinda Williams and spearheaded by none other than Bob Dylan. A critic’s darling thanks to a string of excellent blues-grinding Stripes albums, he began work with The Raconteurs in 2005 and now finds their second offering, Consolers Of The Lonely, nominated for Best Rock Album at the forthcoming Grammy Awards. However you cut it, this is a man who knows his country, knows his rock, and isn’t going to be stupid about the way he blends them.
And so perhaps it should not surprise that The Raconteurs would choose to recolor their folky current single as a bluegrass-inflected number, or that they would pick collaborators for the project from the absolute cream of the crop. And yet, when you really think about the fact that a high-profile rock band has decided, just for fun’s sake, to share their spotlight with Ricky Skaggs – a legend whose legacy speaks for itself – and Ashley Monroe – a uniquely talented young singer-songwriter whose highly promising debut, Satisfied, got the Sony shaft back in 2006 – you can’t help but grin. On paper, this is the kind of effort that defines “critic bait”: cool artists collaborating with other cool artists on a cool song simply because it’s a cool thing to do.
That’s quite an accomplishment itself, but thankfully, the single’s appeal is pretty well substantiated by the music itself. “Old Enough” is a decent song on its own, with a straightforward, confrontational lyric that disparages the plucky confidence of youth, but the real pleasures of this record come from the new twists: Monroe’s harmonic chemistry with singer Brendan Benson, the sweet fiddle part getting more room to breathe thanks to a less crunchy arrangement, the oddly appropriate inclusion of a certain Everly Brothers line, the acoustic fury of the song’s coda. There’s a sense of vital, organic creation pulsating throughout this recording that manages to keep you interested even when the holes in the song and performances appear.
And there are holes, to be sure: some of the instrumentals toward the end sound tossed off, the arrangement is not necessarily the most cohesive, the lyric still falls on the uncaptivating side of minimalism that requires listeners to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. These problems somewhat mar the record’s attempts to convey a serious theme, limiting its appeal to “music for music’s sake”; it’s sort of the difference between campfire singing that means something and campfire singing “just because.” But for whatever the latter is worth, it’s hard to argue too much with how The Raconteurs and Co. have done it here: beautiful singing, mostly beautiful playing, uncompromising creativity. It’s enough to make a mainstream country fan pretty dang jealous.
Written by Brendan Benson & Jack White
Buy: Old Enough
Listen/Watch (note that the sound mix is a bit better in the actual track than in the video, though it’s the same performance):