Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 40: Raconteurs “Help Us Stranger” (2019)

The 40th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to Platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in June of 2019. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (usually one full-length album and one 7” single) to its Platinum members every three months.

The 40th Vault package contained an exclusive vinyl edition of the Raconteurs’ 2019 studio album Help Us Stranger, and a 7-inch single containing early demo versions of two of the album’s songs.

The 180-gram Vault edition of Help Us Stranger was pressed in green vinyl with black and copper swirls, and was packaged with moving-image lenticular cover art. The album was the Raconteurs’ first studio album in eleven years, and is their third studio album to date. The album’s title continues the tradition of this band’s album titles being pluralized versions of song titles. Help Us Stranger is a welcome return to work, and to form, for this quasi-supergroup.

The opening track “Bored And Razed” deceptively begins with an understated blues guitar intro, but then erupts with hard rock fury, telling the tale of the clashing relationship between a Detroit-bred man and a cosmopolitan California woman. The second track, “Help Me Stranger”, has a similarly deceptive beginning, at first resembling a ‘50’s country song sung by bassist Jack Lawrence; then it flashes forward in time to become a more modern faster-tempo folk-rock number. The Racs take an even more modernizing approach to their cover of Donovan’s old folk ditty “Hey Gyp”, which is largely propelled by drums with an occasional electric guitar burst. But as contemporary as Help Us Stranger may come across, especially with Dean Fertita guesting on keyboards, the album does not go as far as the futuristic art-rock of White’s most recent solo album Boarding House Reach – although the fast-moving “Don’t Bother Me” and the fluctuating “What’s Yours Is Mine” do bring that album to mind. Some of the tracks are more reminiscent of White’s first two solo albums, such as the hard-rocking “Sunday Driver” and the slightly quirky piano-based ballad “Shine The Light On Me”.

Of course, this is not all White’s album: Brendan Benson shares songwriting credit with White on 11 of the 12 tracks (excluding that Donovan cover), and sometimes takes the lead vocals. Benson’s approach tends to lean toward retro-‘70’s rock and pop styles. “Now That You’re Gone” is an easily digestible melancholy pop tune peppered with guitar bursts. “Only Child” is a vintage-sounding folk-rock ballad given a modern touch by Fertita’s keyboards. “Live A Lie” is a decent power pop track. And although Benson’s Southern rock opus “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” is a bit over-stylized, it’s still a respectable neo-Skynyrd tune for our time.

One slightly disappointing track is “Thoughts And Prayers”, which tries but fails to end the album on a deeper note (a la the previous album’s “Carolina Drama”). But when the Racs don’t sound like they’re trying too hard – which fortunately is most of the time – then Help Us Stranger is a very accomplished rock and roll album that was well worth the long wait.

The 7-inch single, pressed in black vinyl, contains early demo recordings of two songs from the album, showing how those songs were envisioned by their authors before they became full-band recordings. The A-side features White’s early bare-bones acoustic demo of the album’s sort-of-title-track “Help Me Stranger”. The lyrics were still being developed – the song title is not mentioned in this early working version – but the guitar foundation was set. As a short Jack White solo acoustic track, the demo works fine. The B-side reveals Benson’s early solo take on “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)”. That demo is also quite good, possessing a more authentic ‘70’s Southern rock sound than its finished version. In fact, it makes me wish the finished version did not have its excessive guitar noise or its repetitive coda.

The bonus items in this Vault package are a Raconteurs bandana designed by drummer Patrick Keeler, and a Raconteurs turntable slipmat designed by Rob Jones. But here's the coolest surprise of all: if you dare to peel off the Vault album's glued-on lenticular cover art, the image underneath is a parody of the infamous Beatles butcher cover. Here is an image of it, so you won’t have to destroy your album cover to see it.

Also, the practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The LP has “Acres To Run” carved in Side I, and “Cornea Rust” carved in Side II. The 7-inch single has “Like Kinfaun” carved in Side A, and “Finnished Product” carved in Side B.

The Raconteurs “Help Us Stranger” (Third Man TMR 600) 2019

Track Listing:

1. Bored And Razed
2. Help Me Stranger
3. Only Child
4. Don’t Bother Me
5. Shine The Light On Me
6. Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)
7. Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)
8. Sunday Driver
9. Now That You’re Gone
10. Live A Lie
11. What’s Yours Is Mine
12. Thoughts And Prayers

Jack White “Help Me Stranger” (demo) b/w Brendan Benson “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” (demo) (Third Man single TMR 622) 2019

a. Jack White “Help Me Stranger” (demo)
b. Brendan Benson “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” (demo)

Reviews of other Third Man Vault packages