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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Black Keys: A brief history and a mini-review of Brothers (why is it so great again?)

I've been following The Black Keys for quite a while now. My uncle, who I grew up with, is pretty tapped into the blues scene, they owned and operated a blues club for several years. They had heard tell of this duo of young guys doing a sort of Junior Kimbrough tribute type thing. Shortly thereafter we actually received an advance copy of The Big Come Up.

In these early years The Black Keys were copying a long tradition in blues music, the guitar/drums duo. This wasn't some new idea, like many seemed to think due to The White Stripes recent popularity. These older blues musicians had been doing this for nearly a century, not to accomplish some sort of "sound" but to split the small pot as few ways as possible. Typically the drummer was paid less than the guitarist/vocalist in such setups as well.

Not only were The Black Keys copying a traditional blues format, but Auerbachs guitar style was a watered down version of Junior Kimbrough (who the band has covered numerous times on several albums and released a tribute album to).

It was very good for a slightly fresh take on a traditional blues duo. However, white kids have been trying to play more or less traditionalist blues for a really long time. They were perhaps noticeable because the blues artists they were copying were relatively obscure blues artists, and most noticeably not Stevie Ray Vaughn, who most of the young white blues guys were (and still are) copying at the time. That being said, they were outright rejected by some of the more knowledgeable indie crowd because they were producing really straightforward blues rock. They were rejected by the blues traditionalist crowd because of their strict adherence to North Mississippi style blues, which wasn't particularly en vogue with the older white guys who controlled the blues traditionalist scene at the time (Chicago blues were and are the dominant style in that scene).

Thickfreakness saw them take large leaps forward as a duo. Patrick Carney became a substantially better drummer, Dan Auerbach became a much better guitarist and singer. Most noticeably their songwriting drastically improved and they stopped leaning on covers as much. They were still producing the same raw blues retrofits, but at a much higher level at this point. Auerbach finally revealed himself as a great crafter of simplistic, yet catchy guitar riffs. And his guitar tone was brutal in a good way. The downside was that The Black Keys didn't have very much sonic diversity up their sleeves and the songs could get "same-y" really quick. Any song off the album could sound great in isolation, but listened to as a whole and you found yourself eventually letting the album become background music, as everything quickly turned quite predictable.

Then they dropped their bombshell. I can still remember the first time I heard Rubber Factory. It was everything The Black Keys had been, but tighter, more catchy and more sonically diversified. Instead of just being neo-blues standard bearers, they were a real Rock and Roll force to be reckoned with. Auerbach had grown to incorporate several different guitar styles and tones throughout the album, and even played fiddle and lap steel at times. Carney had perfected his brutal at times, but often very syncopated drumming style. The biggest leap forward was they had learned to write more than one song. A prior criticism of the band was something along the lines of "that one song they wrote was great, they just rewrote it 13 more times." Here they ventured from the stark, hypnotic When The Lights Go Out to the catchy, funky Girl Is On My Mind, to the sweet Lengths. Instead of being a weak shadow of their influences the band had transcended their influences to be something that while derivative, was great in its own right. The album was generally critically acclaimed, except by Rolling Stone, who gave it a mixed review. The album put the band out there in the indie scene solely by its undeniable brilliance. But it didn't get them all the way out there. A lot of indie hipsters still didn't really like them. They were far too traditionalist and sounded sort of like a lot of the music their parents liked.

The duo then tooled around for a couple of years, releasing a tribute album to Junior Kimbrough called Chulahoma and another album called Magic Potion, which was good, but certainly not of the level of Rubber Factory. The band was treading water at this point and was losing a lot of the momentum that they had built up with their steady ascendancy with their first three albums. Then they got their big break.

If one man could be called The Coolest Person In The World in 2008, it was probably Danger Mouse. He had built incredible amounts of credibility in both the popular music world and the indie rock world. His most revered work was a never released mashup album he compiled of The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album, called (oddly enough) The Grey Album. In fact not that many people have ever heard this album, but the idea sounded like perhaps the coolest thing in the history of the world to many, and the fact that evil record companies had suppressed the album only further built Danger Mouse's legend. So in 2007, when a collaboration with Ike Turner fell through due to Turner's unfortunate death (it's a tragedy that Ike Turner will be forever remembered as just the guy who beat Tina Turner. With all his flaws he was a truly great musician.), Danger Mouse agreed to produce the band's next album. All the stars were lined up for The Black Keys to burst upon the scene and conquer the world.

The unfortunate problem was that the album was not very good. Attack and Release screams of being forced. You might call it the equivalent of a 16th century arranged royal wedding, in theory its a great idea bringing together two giants from different worlds, it makes a lot of people happy, but in actuality the two don't really work together. It received near universal mixed reviews, mostly by publications that desperately wanted it to be a great rock record and save rock and roll music. And it just wasn't. Danger Mouse didn't understand The Black Keys and The Black Keys didn't really get what Danger Mouse was after either. It came off as an aimless record devoid of the brutal, "we're taking over the world" mentality that permeated Rubber Factory so effectively. Most notably Carney's take no prisoners drumming style seemed to be neutered. The album had its moments, but as a whole it fell really flat.

However, what the album did was get their name out there. If indie kids love anything, it's the idea of an unusual collaboration. You'll often read Kanye West reviews by indie blogs where the only thing they ever seem to mention was who he collaborated with or sampled. The sign that they worked with Danger Mouse, and that Danger Mouse was willing to work with them, was an affirmation to many, in and of itself. Even if the resulting album wasn't all that great.

So you now had a band that were indie darlings, yet their current album wasn't really good enough to quite earn them fame yet. A band with a reputation, with a few good/great albums out there, that just needed to give the indie world something to like.

Enter Brothers. A very good album, with great packaging. An album that was introduced right as both the indie world was primed to like the band and popular culture had began to be inundated with 15 second clips of the band's past hits. (this reaffirms two points about The Black Keys, they sound fantastic in 15 second clips and they are sellouts that somehow get a pass for it, not that there's anything wrong with selling your music, but why do they get a pass while Moby was skewered? Also of note was that almost all the songs on those commercials and movie trailers were from Rubber Factory) Somehow the confluence of all these factors led to the album being massively overrated. It was a good album, to be sure, but it wasn't their best album, by a long shot. It certainly wasn't as good as other albums in 2010. Yet many outlets pegged it as their album of the year and it won a Grammy for Alternative Album of the Year.

The album was simply a mixing of the less inspired moments of Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory. I defy anyone to listen to Brothers back to back with Rubber Factory and tell me that Brothers even remotely holds a candle. The album lacks the rawness that the best moments on Rubber Factory had. It lacks the tenderness of The Lengths. Auerbach seems much less inclined to just go for big moments, vocally or with his guitar. His tone seems more subdued, less raw. And the songs aren't as well structured, catchy or compelling. There are certainly moments, again, but none of the highs are as high and the album runs into that "same-y" rut that their first two albums did. But yet it's by far their best selling album and most critically acclaimed.

What we can see here is that the confluence of so many factors: the packaging of the album, the band's exposure on commercials, movies, The Colbert Report, indie blogs, etc and their traditionalist mass appeal combined with their recently found indie cred. These all combined to create an unstoppable tour de force, regardless of whether or not the album is actually great instead of just good.

Rating for Brothers: 79/100


  1. Typical hipster bullshit, the second something becomes popular, they somehow are automagically terrible.

  2. considering I like their most recent album more than this one, and their favorite album of mine was rubber factory, which was featured in 14 different commercials, I don't think so dude.