Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . The Black Keys

Welcome to the first outing of a new Blues Enthused feature.  Note the wording in the title though.  This ain't no ‘Top 10’, ‘Best Of’, or league table of tunes.  It’s a vaguely chronological overview, a gateway to the Black Keys’ canon if you like, and if I were to compile it next week I might well choose 10 different tracks.  And the first subjects for the Ten Top Tracks series are The Black
The happy-go-lucky Black Keys
Keys because they are, as I’ve suggested before, pretty much where my rediscovery of blues music began.  All clear?  Then pay attention to the links below if you want to listen to a particular track, and let’s rock!
‘I’ll Be Your Man’ from The Big Come Up (2002):  I remember reading an interview in which drummer Pat Carney said that when they got together all his buddy Dan Auerbach really listened to was “fucked up blues”, and this original track epitomises the raw, crackling, don’t-give-a-shit quality of their debut album – that last quality underlined by the very, er, quirky closing “song” ‘240 Years Before Your Time’.  The Akron drums’n’guitar duo throw a few impressive covers into the mix, including a pretty heavy take on the old blues classic ‘Leavin’ Trunk’, but their originals announce their arrival with a sackful of personality. 
‘have love, will travel’ from thickfreakness (2003):  Auerbach and Carney eschewed capitals for the song titles on their second album, but if anything it should be titled THICKFREAKNESS to reflect the mountainous sound the duo generated.  It’s one of my favourite Black Keys albums, partly because of that sound, and also because it’s stuffed with so many good tunes.  But from the various potential picks I’ve gone for this belting cover of a garage rock classic previously best known for the 1965 version by The Sonics.  Worth knowing though, that it was written by
one Richard Berry, who also penned ‘Louie Louie’, and though both these classics were popularised by white kids (The Kingsmen in the latter case), Berry was a black doo-wop and R’n’B artist.
‘Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down’ from Rubber Factory (2004):  The Black Keys continued to mine their productive early seam of punk-ish blues on their third album, which was recorded in – guess what? – a disused rubber factory.  This irresistible original epitomises the strengths in their early sound, with walloping drums from Carney, a humdinger of a choppy riff and ear-
curdling slide guitar from Auerbach, and a seriously catchy melody.  Shake those hips people – you know you want to!
‘Psychotic Girl’ from Attack & Release (2008):  A&R shows the first clear signs of the Keys spreading their sonic wings with the aid of new producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), who would go on to be half of Gnarls Barkley and here introduces a raft of different instrumentation.  Songs like ‘I Got Mine’ and ‘Strange Times’ still pack a punch and a hook, but when ‘Psychotic Girl’ arrives it’s with a dreamy, psychedelic vibe, accentuated by crooning backing vocals from Carla Monday and a delicate, plinking piano motif from the Mouse fella.
‘Howlin’ For You’ from Brothers (2010):  Brothers seems to me something of a transitional album, coming in the wake of a hiatus in which Auerbach and Carney barely spoke to each other, to the point where Auerbach didn’t even tell his bandmate he was releasing a solo album, while for his part Carney’s marriage was falling apart.  But it’s also the point at which the Keys became a seriously big deal, winning Grammys, registering hit singles, and the album eventually going platinum.  ‘Howlin’ For You’ is one of those gold disc singles, its glam-rock stomping vibe pointing forward to what would come next.
‘Little Black Submarines’ from El Camino (2011):  When I first heard El Camino, I remarked to a friend that it was like Jimmy Page and John Bonham had stumbled across a T.Rex recording session, and Jimmy had drawled, “Nah, that’s not how it’s done Marc.  This is how it’s done!”  That thumping glam-rock vibe produced a couple of mammoth hits in ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Gold On The Ceiling’, and it still tickles me that there’s a riff on ‘Run Right Back’ which carries echoes of Mud’s ‘Tigerfeet’.  (Did the Keys ever “really love your tigerfeet”?  Somehow I doubt it.)  But ‘Little Black Submarines’ actually is even more Zeppelin-esque, with a couple of wistful, acoustic verses before ripsnorting chords and crashing drums demonstrate just how heavy they can get, a shout of “Hey!” heralding a lipsmacking Auerbach lead guitar salvo.
‘Weight Of Love’ from Turn Blue (2014):  If ‘Psychotic Girl’ had a quasi-psychedelic feel, the near seven minutes of the opening track of Turn Blue sounds like Pink Floyd having a bash at a soul ballad.  The intro is patient and elegiac, and after the sweetly sad verses (stacked with high harmonies from the wonderful McCrary sisters) the song culminates in a sweeping, soaring,
layered guitar workout from Auerbach.  Turn Blue isn’t the most accessible of Black Keys albums, but ‘Weight Of Love’ is still a statement track.
‘Sit Around And Miss You’ from ‘Let’s Rock’ (2019):  If Turn Blue wasn’t entirely radio friendly, ‘Let’s Rock’ is very much the opposite – carefree and hit-heavy.  I could probably have picked from half a dozen tracks across the album’s breezy 39 minutes, among them the terrifically catchy ‘Lo/Hi’ and ‘Get Yourself Together’, but I’m going for the delightfully woozy ‘Sit Around And Miss You’, which sounds like our boys have been giving Stealer’s Wheel a damn good listening to.
‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ from Delta Kreme (2021):  Having produced an album of face-slappingly upbeat spontaneity, Auerbach and Carney then slammed on the brakes and headed back to some of their seminal influences, recording a bundle of covers typified by the deep grooves of North Mississippi hill country big cats Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, collaborating with veterans of their bands.  The mood is low-down, slow-down, and ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ is a perfect example of its loping, hypnotic sound.
‘For The Love Of Money’ from Dropout Boogie (2022):  The most recent album from the Akron boys is a bit of an uneven affair, with a few songs that probably won’t do much to turn your head.  Even ‘Your Team Is Looking Good’, which has a killer hook, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  But I’ve fished out ‘For The Love Of Money’ for the way it welds a typically bluesy riff to a late period Beatle-ish melody and rock’n’roll sensibility, with Auerbach channelling John Lennon on his vocals at times.  And frankly ‘Burn The Damn Thing Down’ is even more brazenly Fab Four-esque.  The pair had covered ‘She Said, She Said’ way back on The Big Come Up all of 20 years before, so it seems what goes around comes around.
It's in the nature of this beast that I’ve skipped a couple of recordings along the way, notably the album Magic Potion and the six track tribute Chulahoma: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough, both from 2006, though there are a few more curiosities out there if you’re minded to look for them.  But hopefully this is a good enough Bluffer’s Guide to Akron’s finest – and will tee you up to make the most of their next album Ohio Players, due for release on 5 April.  Turn it up, folks!

A playlist of all ten tracks discussed above is now available on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.
You can pre-order the new Black Keys album Ohio Players here.

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