The Black Keys

TrackAlbum / EP
When The Lights Go OutRubber Factory
Set You FreeThickfreakness
Psychotic GirlAttack & Release
Your TouchMagic Potion
Girl Is On My MindRubber Factory
I'll Be Your ManThe Big Come Up
Grown So UglyRubber Factory
Have Mercy On MeChulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
She Said, She SaidThe Big Come Up
Lonely BoyEl Camino

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Contributor: Glenn Smith

It is sixty years since Sam Phillips booked Elvis into 706 Union Avenue to meet up with Scotty and Bill and have a crack at recording a few tunes. Since then, despite quite a few attempts to pull it down, rock and roll has pretty much reigned supreme in the poppermost world. And one of the key reasons seems to be that whenever the ghost of Patti Page looks like being resurrected by the likes of Ariana Grande, somewhere in the western world a couple of boys (let’s be honest its always boys) find a space and put a drum kit together with a guitar and start working out in 4/4, just like Elvis did with Scotty (and Bill …).

And so it was in the early 2000’s when a couple of boys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney) got together in a no account mid-west American town (Akron Ohio), set up in the basement and belted out some old blues with made up words to create the next take in what is hopefully an endless line of gut bucket rock and roll. Roiling riffs, bluesy vocals and a hardcore drumming style, this is the Black Keys sound. Until, that is, they decided they needed a change of direction and brought in the production guru. Sound familiar? The other constant in rock and roll (and its ongoing struggle to survive) is the “serious artists with something to say syndrome”, what can be termed the Jim MacLaine moment, where they go looking to make something more than the rock and roll they started with. And the guru in this case is Brian Burton, otherwise known as Danger Mouse, who sneaks in at the mid-way point of the Keys career. Starting with Attack & Release (2008) the Danger Mouse brings in a fuller sound with his considerable production and song writing skills, all of which brings about their biggest commercial smash in El Camino (2011).

This appraisal tends towards the early riff laden period, although with a couple of nods towards where they have been since Burton came on the scene. The first six are all great examples of their signature sound. Thundering drums usher in When The Lights Go Out and Set You Free, both tunes weaving in the rhythm with the vocals. Psychotic Girl brings the mood down with a smooth and sinister shuffle and a nasty slide solo, and we get the first hint of Danger Mouse’s influence coming in. There’s tinkling piano, a bit of banjo and some ethereal backing vocals giving the song the feel of sample loops being pushed up against the blues of the band. The next three tunes, Your Touch (Magic Potion 2006), Girl Is On My Mind (Rubber Factory 2004) and I’ll Be Your Man (The Big Come Up 2002) kick out and kick hard with the guitar riffs pumping out while Auerbach sings his blues. This is the Black Keys in all their gut kicking glory.

The next three are covers; another feature of their music has been reworking their influences, in particular old blues, sixties English pop and garage band numbers. Their garage band predecessors, The Sonics, have received favourable treatment but their main go-to man has been Junior Kimbrough, represented here with his Have Mercy On Me. If you want the history of rock and roll summed up in a tune then Grown So Ugly by Angola Prison inmate Robert Pete Williams (Free Again 1961) is a great example of how an African-American man’s true life blues can be transformed into great rock and roll. The Black Keys rework comes via Beefheart’s Safe As Milk (1967) version but is wholly original in its frenetic drumming and howling guitar. This Toppermost could have included their brilliant cover of the Kinks’ Act Nice And Gentle (Rubber Factory 2004), but it is almost impossible to go past their superb rework of Lennon’s She Said, She Said (Revolver 1966). Featured on their debut album, this cover is stripped of its mid-sixties psychedelia and is probably what that old rocker Lennon would have preferred. It is certainly in the top ten of any Fab Four covers list this writer would put together.

This list rides out on the incessant driving chorus of Lonely Boy from their smash hit album El Camino (2011). A brilliant pop song, the drums and guitar are still pushed out in front, but now they have organ riffs and a pumping bass creating a swirling sound that is the perfect soundtrack to any road trip.

 

The Black Keys Official Website

The Black Keys biography (iTunes)

Glenn Smith lives in Sydney and teaches high school English, plays very bad guitar with his bass playing son and spends far too much time thinking about The Beatles…

TopperPost #394

3 Comments

  1. Calvin Rydbom
    Jan 3, 2015

    No account Midwestern town? Really Glenn? That’s cold, we’re a nice place to live thank you very much. And really Cleveland, Akron, Canton are right next to each other. In fact you can pass through all 3 downtowns in an hour of driving. And it’s a 3.5 million people market. So they weren’t really in the middle of nowhere. That said I remember watching Dan and Pat in front of 30 people, mostly friends, in one of their earliest gigs. I don’t know them well, but it’s one of those we have mutual close friends. I gotta say though I don’t completely agree with you as I prefer that early rougher banging them out sound to what they are doing now. But your list is very defendable, and a good primer for non fans.
    Now that crack about Akron……

  2. Glenn Smith
    Jan 4, 2015

    Calvin, I thought I’d cop it for not mentioning Chrissie Hynde and Devo, also from that “no account” town. I’m pretty much with you on the earlier records, Rubber Factory being the standout.

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Jan 4, 2015

    Hah, no worries. I wasn’t really insulted. I would imagine Akron, Ohio does seem a bit of nowhere to a guy from Sidney. Few years back I saw a cover band in a bar, and later talking to their leader he told me he was in the Mothersbaugh Brothers’ last band before Devo and he had decided to quit music and get a real job because he didn’t think the music thing was going anywhere and he had just started playing again. Bad career choice.
    Dan worked for a friend of mine at a record shop years ago, when he was just a kid. Gavin remembers at an after hours kind of jam telling him if he didn’t quit and start pursuing music full time he was going to fire him so he had to. But I do remember going to support them when they started in front of 25-30 people. Pretty cool in retrospect.

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