The Black Keys Old

[This post is in reply to The Black Keys‘ new album due out tomorrow, Attack & Release, which rocks but does not grind; I want to explain the sonic difference between these two verbs. I’ve written about The Black Keys before (and I blog about the new disc tomorrow) because they’re clear geniuses, but this post is about the slow unfolding of their impressive body of work and provides context for understanding A&R’s slightly new direction.

The Wall Street Journal has a very good article about the nuts and bolts of their label changes and some of the production decisions, so I offer this sweeping review as color commentary to accompany that play-by-play analysis. I keep this post relatively link-free because I assume you can find mp3s if you want, including live cuts, that you can run YouTube on your own, and that you will buy their entire back catalog as soon as financially feasible.]

The Black Keys’ albums pull you deeper and deeper into the grind of a sweaty southern summer night.

2002’s The Big Come Up sounds like a greatest hits album. Concert-goers vetted those songs long before they were committed to waves or ones and zeros. The euphoria the performance of these songs provokes makes you wish you knew more about the pentatonic scale so you could understand the blues’ magnétisme animal. Certainly, the sound is of a time, a place, and a people. But as the guitar blisters the paint off the walls, each person in the room intuits: “This music is me.” And though you may not consider yourself much of a dancer, when Dan commands you to Do the Rump the instruction is as clear as the hokey pokey at a skating rink, and your body sets aside inhibition long enough to let your backbone slip.

Thickfreakness, released a year later, sounds like the second set of the night at this achingly good club The Black Keys have fashioned with their discography. Thickfreakness contains the songs best played after the tourists have gone home. The true belivers are left, who have accepted that though they thought Rock and Roll was their heart, hearts aren’t always the trump suit. This music is of the soul, and you feel it in your bones. The audience gravitates to the center of the floor, where the close air becomes indistinguishable from the prickly sweat and the bodies of strangers stay just a little bit nearer each other than necessary.

The lyrics of Thickfreakness don’t matter; it’s the Fat Possum Mississippi southern grind that dominates. The vocals, guitar, and percussion pop alternately, never in unison but always in sync. Your ribs start to ache from the bass or the emotion, it doesn’t matter which. The hootings and hollerings for the band that seemed perfectly reasonable after each somewhat disconnected (but killer) song in the first set are discarded now during Thickfreakness because this performance is channeling music to you and for you, not as a present but out of a necessity. The music must be made and you must dance in this unconscious late-night social compact–no thanks required.

The moments between songs gust cool air through the room, allowing a breath but without breaking the sultry spell. Eventually, you use one of them to tear yourself away from the deepening grind for a moment, and when you return, Rubber Factory is playing. The music revs up one more time to infuse the crowd with wildness and remind them of the range of which their dance floor doings are capable. This is the second wind, before the club starts to close down and the band sweetly begs off with Junior Kimbrough covers from the EP Chulahoma, some of their very best creations. Pairs of people drift off into the streets, where the silence is filled with the bouyant feeling that the night was perfect but may not be done quite yet.

Back in a second-story room the heavy curtains are pulled back to reveal the balcony, and the ceiling fan does little to disturb the syrupy moonlit air. The early morning night begins to burn. There is something in this room partially obscured by the luxurious, mysterious velvety purple of the 2006 Magic Potion album. Indications of recent body heat glow infrared behind the smooth hooks. Somewhere here in the lush guitar the wanting wails. The ride cymbal holds the tortured thread constant. The songs pulse cautions of seductions, of the danger and the desire–“love and lust / go hand in hand.” The flames of vocals, guitar, and percussion–this triumvirate melts together into a waxy pool featuring the warm fingerprints of all the many emotions that the blues can encompass.

By the end of the album I’m spent. Honestly. It wears me down and out with its relentless intensity. Which is why I couldn’t imagine what The Black Keys’ 2008 disc would be like. They couldn’t possibly push any deeper into the night; nothing sexier could be wrung from their sound than Magic Potion.

And the album Attack & Release is very good. But it’s the product of production, of other minds (and instruments) chiming in to alter The Black Keys’ sound. Instead of leaning on you, heavier and heavier, pushing you into a raw frenzy and pulling you into their devilish, gorgeous night, the songs are broken up into rockin’ bits like most songs. So though it regrettably doesn’t grind like their other discs, I look forward to driving down the interstate with this CD cranked. Maybe it’s the start of another Black Keys day.



Filed under Review

2 responses to “The Black Keys Old

  1. You’re right about the rock vs. grind distinction; This record is definitely a tighter and more polished version of the Keys than we are used to, but I still love it. Word on the street is that a lot of these tracks were originally written for a Black Keys, Danger Mouse, and Ike Turner collaboration, which obviously was tabled when Ike passed away. It will be interesting to see how the tracks on Attack and Release work in a live setting…

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