Saturday, July 14, 2007

On Discovering "The Black Keys"

The Gods of Blues Rock

If I were to name you some of my favorite rock artists of all time, they would include (just to name a few) Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Obviously, the full list would include the likes of Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and whole slew of others. But, what distinguishes Cream and Hendrix from other artists is how much I enjoy listening to their music.

Both of these artists have created bodies of work that I can always come back to. Every time I fire up a track I've listened to a hundred times before, I can't help but get caught up in the display of raw talent bequeathed to me through a fairly large, consistent body of work.


But what about since then? I wasn't even born when Cream and Hendrix were in their prime (I don't count Cream's reunion tour). I just can't think of many "go to" bands that are as consistent and enjoyable to listen to.

Don't get me wrong. I've heard plenty of good music that has come out since then. I've heard plenty of great--even phenomenal--music that traverses indie, folk, rock, and blues in ways I'd have never imagined before. All of these other bands surely have their places in music history, but . . . something has been lacking.

I'm not enjoying it.

The Detroit Revival?

Take The White Stripes for example. Jack White clearly sold his soul to the devil in order to generate that much sound from his guitar. Yet, despite the exhibition of talent, I've only really enjoyed a handful of tracks on each album ("Ball and Biscuit" on Elephant still blows me away). And unfortunately, even the best tracks are overshadowed by a cloud of rubbish songs with jilted transitions and mediocre filler. I'm left feeling that the music itself is fleeting.

(I know this is sacrilege, but I'll admit to it: 20% of the stuff Zeppelin put out is borderline unlistenable. That number is probably higher with The Who, which is a band I can't quite learn to love).

Tempo Tempo Tempo!

These days, the yardstick by which we measure talent on the electric guitar is how fast you can up the tempo. And sure if you up the tempo enough you'll get something like The Strokes, whose sound I love. Nevertheless, I really do miss the way Soundgarden generated a wall of sound that made you feel like you were trudging through mud.

The push to play faster and faster has had harmful effects, I think. I wonder if bands, in an attempt to remain marketable, feel the need to constantly reinvent themselves on every album. Despite all their talk about stripping the music to its essential elements and only using three instruments at a time, the tracks on every new White Stripes album seem woefully undercooked. Sure the music is still great, but I get the feeling that they're so busy evolving that they've overlooked some great niche sound. I suppose a niche is a bad thing these days.

Reinvention is overrated.

The only artist I think of that can consistently pull off reinventing himself is Beck Hansen. But despite all of his avant-garde flavor of rock, even Beck knows a good thing when he hears it. His slower, folksy, country-twang has matured on Mutations and Sea Change.

Sometimes I wonder what Jimi Hendrix would have sounded like if he had been alive another twenty years. Would he have been a die-hard rocker like Neil Young and stuck to his roots? Would he have evolved like Eric Clapton? Would he be puttering along, almost irrelevantly, like Tom Petty?

A Discovery

If I had to name a band whose music I have enjoyed the most in the last decade, I'd be hard pressed to give you the name of anybody but The Black Keys.

That's right. The Black Keys.

I don't remember when I first listened to The Black Keys. It must have been after I moved to California, though it is quite hard to imagine not having listened to their music before then.

The band consists of Dan Auerbach (on guitar and vocals) and Patrick Carney (on drums). On your first listen, you can easily imagine this brand of blues-rock wafting through the Mississippi Delta, but this duo is from Akron, Ohio. They officially started just five years ago, but from the sound of Auerbach's voice, you'd think he was at it for a few decades.

Out of the Bog

The Black Keys are an anachronism. Their sound is distant and swampy. The vocals are distorted, bluesy, and guttural. I'm a complete sucker for it; I can't get enough.

And what's even more interesting is that the band doesn't really consider itself a blues band. There's a great interview by Patrick Corcoran that makes some very interesting comparisons to Wu Tang that I would never have thought of.

Under the Radar

Inexplicably, Pitchfork has given most of their albums lukewarm reviews. The review for Magic Potion notes specifically that the band doesn't add something 'new' to this album. And in reading those reviews, it occurred to me: Pitchfork IS the epitome of the culture of tempo. Every week, they give me a list of new artists they think are absolutely amazing (and for the most part, they make decent picks). But like fickle critics, they won't appreciate the same sound in the next album because its no longer novel.

Maybe that's what I like the most about The Black Keys. They've found their hook and are content at letting the sound develop and move at their own pace. Their albums do sound alike. But while some thought Magic Potion didn't really offer anything "new," it succeeded in deepening a consistent body of work. It it isn't broke, don't fix it.

Auerbach and Carney seem much more committed than Jack and Meg White to stick to their roots and explore sound through (albeit repetitive) wildly infectious riffs. And the fact that Patrick Carney knows how to play the drums is an added plus. Each track is full of soul. It doesn't just sound cool, but it feels as though the music has an emotional depth that is missing in even the best tracks by their contemporaries.

Enough With The Bad-Asses Already

Imagine if you met Jimi Hendrix. Sure he would be way cooler than you were, but I just don't get the feeling that he'd be an asshole about it. Incidentally, I'm not sure if he'd be sober enough to figure out I was in the room, but it's clear that Jimi wasn't an asshole.

Similarly, you don't the feeling that Auerbach and Carney are giving the finger to everyone as they play their unique brand of rock-and-roll (you know, like the way Neil Young does). Nor do you get the feeling that they'd be flipping you off even if they weren't playing music (you know, like the way Iggy and The Stooges probably would).

The point is this. They're not playing rock and roll out of spite. They're not playing because its a chic retro thing to do. This duo just seems to have a genuine affection for the music--and it shows.

Auerbach and Carney's sense of humour shines through. Give a look at this video for "Your Touch."

Of course, the video takes the cliche of dying in a barrage of gunfire on its head. The high point is a great exchange between the two discussing the gunfire:

Auerbach: So, how do you feel . . . about being dead?

Carney: I dunno. My neck hurts.


Carney: You didn't look that cool out there.

Auerbach: Well, at least I died doing what I love. You know, lip-syncing. I love that shit.

I'm sick of bad-asses. These guys are hilarious.

A Recommendation

It's only through The Black Keys that I've discovered a legendary (and unknown) blues singer named Junior Kimbrough. He'd been recording since the 1960's and died in 1998. The Black Keys have done an amazing cover album with a half dozen of his songs. The album, named "Chulahoma" pays homage to an artist I have, unfortunately, just discovered.

I strongly urge you to give a listen to the album. I recommend My Mind is Ramblin'.

You can also listen to The Black Keys on Rhapsody (Free) here.

Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

there was a good NPR story about them last september:

your review is dead on about its comparisons to the white stripes. in fact, stewart in the NPR story makes very similar observations on a number of topics.

keep up the great work!

Mad.J.D. said...

Let's have a ball and a biscuit, sugar, and take our sweet little time about it.

A few things: I'm actually pretty tired of the comparisons between the Black Keys and The White Stripes. I see where it comes from, since both acts are born of the same stripped-down garage aesthetic, and since The Black Keys probably owe a lot of their success to the ground that The White Stripes paved with listeners in the late 90s and early 2000s. But I've read way too many critics write things like "If you thought the White Stripes were real, the Black Keys are REAL!"

I realize that's not what you're saying exactly, though you do seem to have an undertone of cynicism running through everything you mention about the White Stripes (e.g., Meg can't play drums, Jack is more interested in evolving or in stardom than he is in music). To get back to the comparison, though, while there are similarities, I just don't see why these bands are so inextricably connected in people's minds.

Look, the Black Keys are a really good band. I've been a listener since 2003 when I came across "Heavy Soul." It knocked my socks off. But it stopped knocking my socks off a few years ago. This is why Pitchfork is underwhelmed by the Keys. You are right: the Black Keys are content just kind of splashing around where they are, while someone like Jack White never is. Pitchfork doesn't exist to pat people on the back for resting on their laurels. It's just not what that type of media is for. Not saying I don't still dig my Black Keys records, but love him or hate him, Jack White occupies a more important place in the music landscape - and I just plain disagree with you about any notion of the White Stripes' music being "undercooked." What they are is all over the map, which I don't think is the same thing. Jack White doesn't "stick to his roots" as you say, because he is rooted in so many different places, while the Black Keys seem to have a much more focused mission. I don't find it to be a matter of commitment.

I haven't had time to spend with Icky Thump yet, but I imagine it achieves something that all White Stripes albums do: a legitimate, creative step in a bold direction that happens to absolutely kick ass. I'm not even saying that makes them better than the Black Keys, because I appreciate what you are saying about consistency. I'm just saying it doesn't make them worse.

I also don't see what thwy do as reinvention - which I think is the right term for changes undergone by acts like Madonna or Metallica. To me, the White Stripes just seem to always be reaching. Which I don't think is a bad thing at all.

So it's obvious that we have differing opinions here. I'm not going to spend any more time trying to sell you anything, since your opinions are informed and well formed. But listening to you talk about your deep appreciation for the Keys is actually really similar to how I feel about the White Stripes. They are one of 5 or 6 bands in my life who have totally blown the doors off of my mind, not just with the first listen, but also after years of playing. I could go on and on, but I won't. I'll just say I love them. Your usage of "rubbish" and "mediocre filler" actually sort of wounds me personally. I've listened to them and wondered if I would ever love other music in the future quite so much. (I would - in 2003 when I heard Interpol.)

A couple other things, just to keep you on your toes: Way more than 20% of Led Zeppelin's catalog sucks. WAY more.

And Soundgarden sucks. They never created a wall of anything but whining. Chris Cornell is to me as Peter Jackson is to you. His contribution to his medium is--to me--obscenely, massively, perversely overrated.

A.H. Rajani said...

I'm willing to validate your personal criticism of Chris Cornell with a "nolo contendre" plea only if you grant me the fact that Peter Jackson IS overrated. Not making any statements about your beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, but as a director who has created a body of work -- King Kong -- this guy wouldn't exist if there wasn't CGI and digital animation.

About Meg not playing the drums -- that's a fact. I was surprised to hear Jack talk about it on Charlie Rose. He said when they first started playing, Meg had never played the drums and he "liked how primitive it was" and "didn't want it to change." How's that for a thesis on a feminist essay? The Man keeping her down.

re: Zeppelin. You won't believe this, but I had "30%" written in there in my first three revisions of the post. I changed it at the last minute since I felt bad for people who were "The Who" fans who I argued have even more unlistenable material. Duly noted!

What's interesting is that I haven't read many comparisons of The White Stripes and The Black Keys before I sat down to write this. This was more of a completely home grown experiement after listening to the music for a few years. But now as I look around--especially that NPR story and a few others I came across this morning--I totally see what you're talking about in terms of a common comparison.

I think the reason they are so often compared is not only b/c they came out around the same time, are from the midwest (there's no such thing as the north midwest is there?), have the same 2 person setup, and exist between the more esoteric indie world and the awful nickelback-esqeu hard rock of today.

What validates the comparison is how the band that always talked about how much they wanted to strip down their sound to its essential elements seems in many ways to be the one that has a much more cluttered, baroque style. It seems like the band that always talked about "only using instruments in 3's" had a gimmick that everyone bought into.

I think that if Jack and Meg had the same exact band, minus the gimmicky talk, I'd be totally on board and I also wouldn't be making the comparison because both bands--as you say--can exist in their own spaces individually.

So looking back, you see the trajectory of two bands, one that stays at the apex of stardom, and another one that's around, but not really given that much credit. When I listen to the White Stripes albums or listen to any of their interviews, I get the feeling that it's always about Jack, not about the music.

re: underwhelmed over time. I think you're exactly right in not being as wowed by the albums as time went on and I think we're both in agreement that this band enjoys splashing around in this familiar space whereas the White Stripes have taken another course altogether.

Two things. First, I think that our timeline is too sped up. My hope is that this band will put out ten or fifteen more records and I think its only after a few years of separation and comparison of the body of work that we'll see important transformations. I think our field of vision is so focused from one album to the next (which you and I both agree is Pitchfork's agenda).

Second, doesn't it bother you that if Pitchfork were around at the time, it would have panned most of Hendrix's albums because most of it sounded the same? Like "Electric Ladyland" would have garnered a 5.7 because it didn't wow them after "Are you Experienced" the year earlier. Cream had a little more variation, but even their stuff was generally cohesive and uniform.

The point I'm making actually has little to do with the Black Keys and the White Stripes actually. It's a partial rant against that myopic wow factor that Pitchfork seems to resemble now. ... Maybe, just maybe, we're missing out on some amazing sound because we're moving past it too quickly. I actually still feel that way about a lot of punk music/culture, where getting older or more famous can lead to instant dismissal. Thus, you're left with a genre that systematically distances itself from not only its most popular musicians but more importantly, those musicians who might develop the sound.

re: White Stripes rubbish and music filler. I refer you to the "rubbish" factor of Led Zeppelin. Just because both are amazing, groundbreaking artist (which I agree both of them are), doesn't mean I need to automatically fall in love with the body of work. I think this is another evil of Pitchfork. When they give a high rating to something, we instinctively feel like we HAVE to love every track or else we're missing something that they believe exists. So what I'm saying is that 20-30% is rubbish, but remind you that the number is in line with those in the pantheon of rock. It's like professional sports man, 2 out of 3.

ps. Interpol's new album is pretty strong.

Mad.J.D. said...

I'm comfortable with where we are at now. We agree on most points. I agree we move past things too quickly - and its annoying, especially in the cooler-than-thou world of indie rock criticism.

You're right: Pitchfork would have panned Hendrix. This is why I take them with a grain of salt, if I take them at all. I look to pitchfork for new acts popping up on the radar and not to validate how I feel about any act in particular. I imagine you feel the same way. So yeah, I'm irritated by that kind of media too. I'm just saying I understand the function that it plays, and why the Black Keys are not of particular import to them.

Interesting that you mention that you'd be on board with The White Stripes if they weren't so gimmicky. My first comment had a paragraph that I ended up deleting about how there is a backlash against the Stripes that seems mostly aimed at their gimmickry. I do not deny that they are a gimmicky band. But I don't see what all that has to do with their sound. It's just marketing, and it has worked. The "are they married or are they related" hype was silly, but it was also brilliant because it got them talked about. In a way, it allowed them to get discovered by more people, which is sort of the whole point of rock stardom. So yeah, the red and white clothes, all of that: it's just marketing that doesn't really have an impact on how they sound. I've never sat listening to them and thought: I wish they hadn't claimed to be brother and sister.

And I know Meg can't play the drums particularly well or even better than me - I don't dispute it at all. I just think it's dwelled on too much. Obviously it works perfectly with what they do, so I'm not sure why people can't sort of move on from that criticism. Bob Dylan couldn't sing. Sid Vicious couldn't play guitar. It doesn't diminish the impact of either act. Not saying people have to like it; just that they should get over it.

As for the rubbish/filler stuff - I just have never perceived it. I think every album is great from start to finish. Okay, except for the song "Aluminum."

Anonymous said...

great 14 minute interview on NPR, pretty humorous:

A.H. Rajani said...

Email from Jeremy:

From the back of "the big come up" LP: "Produced by PATRICK CARNEY using his patented recording technique known as medium-fidelity. This system requires equal parts broke-ass shit to equal parts hot-ass shit."

A.H. Rajani said...

an interesting piece of music history i stumbled across:

believe it or not, rolling stone magazine reviewer jon landau actually killed Cream after their third album. he reviewed a concert: "Clapton is a master of the blues clich├ęs of all the post World War II blues guitarists, particularly B.B. King and Albert King. And he didn't play a note that wasn't blues during the course of the concert... Improvisation means the creation of new musical ideas spontaneously. It does not mean stringing together pieces and phrases of already learned musical ideas. He is a virtuoso at performing other people's ideas".

landau was also noted for killing hendrix's "are you experienced" album as well.

I guess this is why rolling stone is basically irrelevant anyway, but its interesting that need for a wow factor has existed for quite some time.

Anonymous said...

Wow, man, I fail to see how Tom Petty is irrelevant. Full moon fever is an awesome album. And Wildflowers is good too. And I think that Petty is pretty reliable at churning out some rocking songs while still evolving as musician. I mean, how much have you listened to? Free Falling is a departure in Refugee, but both are good in their own right. I mean, I don't think I 've ever been to a party where they didn't play Last Dance with Mary Jane. No offense, but have you never heard of the Traveling Wilburys? I'd argue that if Petty had been irrelevant he wouldn't have been able to hold his own with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, George Harrison or Bob Dylan.

A.H. Rajani said...

I remember being excited when I purchased Tom Petty's box set, and then becoming increasingly dissatisfied as I listened to it because--although it was consistent, and who am I to dis Petty for trying to play the same song for a few decades--the songs themselves seem so cookie-cutter and radio-ready that they lack any of the cache of more compelling musicians.

With that said, I'll give Full Moon Fever another chance and see how it goes.

Pissedoffcabbie said...

The Black Keys make me proud to be from Akron. There's been a great many bands from that area that broke new ground, and the Keys belong.

J.Lovless said...

I agree with Mad J.D.
I love both bands, but Jack White paved the way for the Keys. He also did it without having to cover 90% of his music like Dan and Carney. Whites music is his own and sometimes it works sometimes it dont, but he's always moving forward. If you want to verify his soul check out the movie "it might get loud in here".

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