Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Black Keys - Dropout Boogie

So here’s a couple of questions.  How did a couple of geeks from Akron, Ohio manage to get this big?  And are they still clearing the bar with Dropout Boogie, their eleventh studio album?
The answer to the second question is yes, though maybe not at the personal best height they achieved with some previous outings.  And the various elements on display here do a pretty good job of explaining the success that The Black Keys have generated along the way, in spite of their outsider origins.
Black Keys Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney in celebratory mode
Pic by Alysse Gafkjen

What Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney do, basically, is mash-up stomping, electrified primitive blues with a Sixties soul sensibility that suits Auerbach’s sweet and airy voice, and a liking for Beatle-ish melodies and psychedelic pop that shapes ear-catching tunes.  But while those ingredients are all pretty retro, stirred together the result is something fresh and distinctively Black Keysian.  Oh yeah, and while you can make comparisons with Jack White, for me there’s a mischievous playfulness about the Keys, both musically and lyrically, that’s more inviting than White’s often confrontational aesthetic.
They can pack a hell of a lot into three minutes, as the opening track ‘Wild Child’ demonstrates. A funky riff gets kicked into a heavier gear by pummelling drums, and Auerbach’s lightly soulful singing on the verses gets beefed up on the chorus by singalong-encouraging backing vocals from Andy Gabbard.  There’s a neat bridge, and a brief stinging guitar solo – and also some twiddling guitar noises in the background.
That twiddliness is a signature component.  There’s an undercurrent of synth-like guitar squiggling on ‘It Ain’t Over’ too, giving a modern twist to the Sixties soul feel of its funky rhythm and ascending, elasticated bass line.  And there’s Sputnik-like bleeping on ‘For The Love Of Money’ as well, embellishing a down-home blues groove and slide guitar, as the backdrop to a Beatles-like tune with biting lyrics that insist greed ain’t good.
The Beatles influence is pretty stark on ‘Burn The Damn Thing Down’, whose melody owes more than a few bucks to ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, set to a dirtied up rolling guitar riff that’s also pretty retro.  But if some of this sounds a bit arch and post-modern, their ear for a killer hook is most clearly illustrated by ‘Your Team Is Looking Good’.  It’s simple to the point of being simplistic, with a chunky, fuzzy riff over a glam-rock whomp of a rhythm from Carney, a repetitive lyric, and a guitar break that does little more than replicate the melody.  But the end result is catchy as all hell.  It’s easy to imagine this hook becoming a favourite of those brass bands at college football stadiums up and down America.
Their dreamier side, à la 2014’s Turn Blue perhaps, comes with ‘How Long’, and its spacey washes of Hammond organ, harpsichord and piano courtesy of Ray Jacildo to go with a swirling Auerbach guitar solo and whooshing sound effects.  And there’s a psychedelic pop bent to ‘Baby I’m Coming Home’ too, albeit pumped up by a gritty riff that welds the chorus together, plus an ear-catching bass line.  It revs up into a wiry guitar solo, before crash landing back into the riff, and some more scudding lead guitar.
Some tracks are less interesting though.  Billy Gibbons pops up with a co-write and some characteristically hypnotic guitar on ‘Good Love’, but it’s basically a reworking of the groove from ZZ Top’s ‘TV Dinners’, notwithstanding a spiky second solo before it fizzles out.  The slow-ish, shuffling ‘Happiness’ never really takes off.  And the closing ‘Didn’t I Love You’ fades out rather inconclusively, although up to that point it reached back to the North Mississippi Hill Country blues vibe of their earlier albums, but with added depth from some rumbling bass, and a grinding, needling guitar solo.
All in all then, Dropout Boogie scores high for seven or eight of its ten tracks, though only two or three are the kinds of haymaker hit they’re capable of at their best.  But that’s still a high enough strike rate to say that The Black Keys team are once again sounding good.
Dropout Boogie
 is out now on Nonesuch Records.

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