The Black Keys Albums
Here is the thing: blues music is the most copied form of music around today, and there is nothing more boring and stale to me than a twelve bar blues song that ANYONE could play. This band tries to make creative blues music, and they can do it very well. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are only two people but together they sound like a whole band. The two-person band thing has been tried many times, most famously in the 00’s by The White Stripes, and these two bands will no doubt be endlessly compared (both play a version of the blues; they have opposing colors in their name). Whatever the band is compared to, the bottom line is they are a great, old fashioned rock band in a time where that is a rare thing. Few people can make rock music as infectious as these guys, The Black Keys make it the blues fresh once again!
Dan Auerbach – Guitar, Vocals; Patrick Carney – Drums
The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Junior Kimbrough, The Kinks, Van Morrison
The Big Come Up – (4 / 5)
The first Black Keys album comes off as if the Beatles were a solid blues-rock band. At least that is their intention, whether they succeed completely is a very intriguing premise, I’ll give them that. A lot of this material really shines and shows how blues rock and be entertaining and good: “Heavy Soul”, “Countdown”, “Yearnin'”, and “The Breaks” are the best examples of that. There is more traditional sounding blues stuff that is also good, standard blues rock along the lines of B.B. King and Junior Kimbrough (whose “Do the Rump” is covered on the second track). “Them Eyes” is probably the best of the “old standard” blues sound, but “Busted” and “I’ll be Your Man” ain’t to bad either. There are some duds that show the band sticking too much to formula, “Run Me Down”, “Brooklyn Bound”, and “Leavin Drunk” are these, which just sound like boring twelve bar blues. See, when the music shows talent and originality there is nothing better than listening to this band. When it is boring and derivative, blues music just sucks plain and simple. More often than not, The Big Come Up shows a band with talent enough to do something interesting with the blues and not repeat the age-old formula. On its best songs (and there is way more good than bad), this debut does just that.
Best Tracks: countdown, heavy soul, the breaks, them eyes
Thickfreakness – (4.5 / 5)
Now this is the sound of a band transformed: during the first thirty seconds of opener “Thickfreakness” one can sense the passion in these two players’ sound. Auerbach and Carney take simple sounding riffs and songs and completely make them something unique here: a kind of blues rock for the 00’s which takes everything that came before and does something new with it. It’s hard to get over how fresh sounding the great songs are on here: the pounding, inhuman drums of “Set You Free”; the Zeppelin tear of “Hold Me in Your Arms”; the emotional struggle of “Hard Row”. Another thing besides just sounding better and more comfortable with each other is the way any sense of tradition has gone out the window, and has completely incorporated itself in the band’s evolution. “Have Love Will Travel” is a cover song, but it SOUNDS like the band wrote it and it blends right in the flow of the record.
Same is true for “Everywhere I go”, another Junior Kimbrough cover. There is still much to be desired form songs like “No Trust” and “If You See Me”, but they aren’t bad songs by any means. There is a great human element on Thickfreakness, in “Hurt Like Mine” the guitar seems to never stop moving – even though Auerbach messes and misses an obvious note at one point, they left the mistake in and the song is better for it! Little touches and careful playing make this a record where it seems like nothing is missing, and it is only two people playing. Compare this to a band like the White Stripes and The Black Keys win any day (a comparison just had to be said somewhere didn’t it?)
Best Tracks: thickfreakness, hurt like mine, hold me in your arms, set you free
Rubber Factory – (5 / 5)
Talk about an opening salvo! The band keeps getting better every album, and in this case their breakthrough record is also by far their best. Rubber Factory starts off with the best music the band has ever done, seven tracks of complete awesome hard rock. The blues element is still there in the band’s sound, but it is more buried than ever and every element of The Black Keys sound is expanded here. “When the Lights Go Out” gets a kind of Indian element going on throughout the mid tempo song; “10 a.m. Automatic” is easily one of the best readymade singles in rock music; “All Hands Against His Own” combines qualities of all of this into the best song the band has done yet; “Desperate Man” gets the blues despair just right; “Girl is on My Mind” shows off more of Carney’s powerhouse drumming while sampling a bit of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; last but not least, “The Lengths” is an elegant, country tinged ballad and marks a new phase for the band.
The last half of the album doesn’t quite match the first, but it is still some of the best work the band has done. “Act Nice and Gentle” is a Kink’s cover that fits right in and “Grown So Ugly” is a Robert Pete Willams tune, no doubt inspired by Captain Beefheart’s similar cover on Safe is Milk. I have to say that I think “Stack Shot Billy” is the album’s only dud and should have left off of the album, but even a bad song on this record is still very listenable. The closing triad (“Aeroplane Blues”, “Keep Me”, and “Till I Get My Way”) is a force to be reckoned with on its own, each one being a soaring rock song in it’s own right. The Black Keys have made the best album of their career and set a high standard for other rock band’s of the era to look up to. Rubber Factory truly stands above the competition is great hard rock music in this or any decade.
Best Tracks: all hands against his own, 10 a.m. automatic, keep me, the lengths
Magic Potion – (2 / 5)
Where to go but up down once you make a record like Rubber Factory? Not only the Key’s best album, but one of the best pure rock records of the 2000’s. Of course the follow up has a lot to live up to, but the band took off a year to tour and write new material so my expectations we’re very high. They should have taken longer. Magic Potion sounds like a pale imitation of the band’s sound. There are NO great songs on here, though “Your Touch”, “You’re the One” and “The Flame” are probably the best.
Best Tracks: Your Touch, You’re the One, The Flame
Attack and Release – (4.5 / 5)
Thank goodness the BK are back to their old self with this album, a fine return to form! Supposedly, it was intended as a concept album to be sang by Ike Turner until his untimely death last year, which would have been something to behold. Still, the BK don’t need Turner, though they were obviously influenced by his music. To produce the record the band enlisted Danger Mouse, and he adds a spooky and psychedelic sound to the bands already perfected blues sound. He could have easily gone overboard, but he works with the band’s music to create something special like all the great producers do. “I Got Mine”, “Strange Times”, and “Psychotic Girl” alone make the album worth buying to hear this new kind of twist to BK’s music.
Of course this sounds like BK of old and of course that sounds like the good blues of old, but the tunes are good and the twists are unique to them so it’s still great music. Agree with me or not, but I believe not every band should experiment with a style that is already perfected. The second half of the record proves it: “So He Won’t Break”, “Oceans and Streams”, and both “Remember When” songs prove it by simply being great blues rockers or blues ballads. The album experiments as well with slower tunes, with “Lies” being an attempt at something more abstract, though closer “Things Aint Like They Used To Be” is not all that memorable. But hey, it’s another great Black Keys record and one of their best, with just a liiiitle bit of a twist.
Best Tracks: psychotic girl, strange times, remember when side a, oceans and streams
Brothers – (3 / 5)
At fifteen songs, this is The Black Keys longest album for no apparent reason, though not quite long enough to be a true double album. The first four songs are some of their best singles and probably brought the group more success than ever, but after those beyond “Sinister Kid” and “Too Afraid to Love You” the majority of the record is filler. Perhaps this could have been a killer EP or a couple of singles with b-sides, leading up to their monumental next record less than a year later.
Best Tracks: howlin for you, everlasting light, tighten up, sinister kid
El Camino – (4.5 / 5)
The Black Keys first three albums have always stuck with me. Ever since I heard them back in the early 00’s, they have been a beacon of fun rock n roll when hard rock bands of any form were a rarity (I still believe rock music almost died back around the turn of the century. Boy bands nearly killed it you guys!). Rubber Factory (2004), especially, has kind of been the standard for me, and nothing has really done it like those first three records…until El Camino came along. It wasn’t that this was a departure for the band as Brothers had come out the year right before, but where Brothers felt overlong and kind of labored as a record, El Camino triumphs as a perfect example of what the band does best with its succinct length and perfect song playlist order. I mean the timeless “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Money Maker”, and “Lonely Boy” are the standouts and they are amazing examples of blues rock.
But there is a depth to the album too: album tracks such as “Sister” and “Stop Stop” are tons of fun to listen too while “Dead and Gone”, “Nova Baby” and “Run Right Back” could easily be singles or standouts as well; the album almost plays like a greatest hits of sorts and many of these songs have been picked as standards and sports events around the world. “Little Black Submarines” goes even deeper, picking parts from classic Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty songs and gluing them back together in their own fashion. It is a consistently amazing album of straight up rock n roll, and I don’t care where it originates- it takes a ton of talent and skill to keep this kind of old fashion garage rock fresh in the 2010’s. So kudos to the Black Keys, for keeping mainstream rock music better than it has any right to be. I can’t ask for anything more from a band who just released their seventh record.
Best Tracks: Money Maker, Gold on the Ceiling, Mind Eraser, Stop Stop