In a sense, this is where Blues Enthused began. About ten years ago, my love of music was rebooted, I opened up to new artists, and began to develop a fresh interest in the blues, after a friend shared The Black Keys’ debut album with me.
It’s been five years since their last record, Turn Blue, took a left turn into dreamy soundscapes after the smash’n’grab glam rock hits of its predecessor, El Camino. So where are Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney at now, exactly? And wherever it is, is it any good?
Pat Carney has been quoted as saying that ‘Let’s Rock’– a title referencing the apparent last words of electric chair victim Edmund Zagorski in Tennessee last year - is “like a homage to electric guitar. We took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat like we used to.” Which sounds a bit disingenuous to me, because while there’s certainly guitars aplenty on the album, it’s a long way from the North Mississippi hill country driven raunch of, say, their 2003 second album thickfreakness.
|The Black Keys - Grooving outside the usual boundaries|
Both Carney and Auerbach have honed their production skills over the years, and on ‘Let’s Rock’ what they’ve done is mesh a welter of squonking, bleeping, slithering and grinding guitar sounds with buffed up vocals from Auerbach, further enhanced by excellent contributions from backing vocalists Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson – the only other musicians appearing on the album.
You want hits? You got ‘em. On third track ‘Lo/Hi’, a juicy ascending guitar line gives way to a fuzzed up riff à la El Camino, like they’re imitating Marc Bolan having a bash at ‘Spirit In The Sky’. On a Stylophone. The chorus dishes out the strongest hook yet, while Auerbach adds a typically scratchy solo and the backing vox could have been parachuted from Motown. ‘Get Yourself Together’ is ass-shakingly hooky the second the chorus kicks in, with Carney finding a delicious pocket, and you’d swear there was a Fender Rhodes in the mix, ‘cept they tell us there ain’t no keyboards on this album, Jack. In fact I think I’ll give it another spin right now, just to hear the guitars squabbling all over the ending. ‘Go’ is two and a half minutes of very Carney-esque chug-a-boom drums driving sublime vocals from Auerbach on a very retro melody, before guitars start charging in from all angles in competition with crashing cymbals.
Sounding retro but at the same time state of the art is a Black Keys speciality, a bit like their contemporaries White Denim. So ‘Every Little Thing’ has a distinct air of Beatle-ish Sixties pop, breathily ‘Penny Lane’-ish before teetering on the edge of collapse with a blazing guitar solo underpinned by riff that echoes ‘All Along The Watchtower’. Meantime ‘Sit Around And Miss You’ would fit in perfectly on K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The Seventies while Michael Madsen does unspeakable things to some unfortunate officer of the law - though their own video is rather more charming. By the time we get to ‘Under The Gun’, squarely in ‘Stop Stop’ El Camino territory with its simple, gritty riff laying the foundations for yet another swish pop melody, like Sixties garage rock with David Cassidy singing ‘How Can I Be Sure’ over the top, I’m starting to dig out stuff like the Nuggets compilation of ‘Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era’, and Runt by that other rock alchemist Todd Rundgren.
In the space of just 39 minutes, ‘Let’s Rock’ demonstrates not only that The Black Keys have still very much got it, but that they’re still blurring lines, still finding new grooves outside genre boundaries. This is Power Pop for 2019, people – let’s get it on!