Monday, April 8, 2024

The Black Keys - Ohio Players

Well, this is nice.
The trouble is, I expect more from The Black Keys than just “nice”, as my recent Ten Top Tracks survey of their career should make clear. Sure, the form that “more” might take will depend on where they’re at right now - I’m not demanding they go over old ground.  But I do want them to make me sit up and pay attention somehow. Unfortunately, Ohio Players doesn’t do that often enough.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing interesting going on.  On the opener ‘This Is Nowhere’, for example, there’s a booming, sonorous bass line that stands out amid the swirling keys, high-pitched vocals and harmonies - and the sweetly floating but not very resonant chorus.
Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach digest the Blues Enthused view of their new album

There’s are some Northern Soul leanings that have a modicum of appeal, on the likes of ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ and ‘Only Love Matters’.  The four-on-the-floor drums are there on the former, along with horns and strings, plinking keys, and a soulful, falsetto chorus backed up by harmonies.  But it seems weird to me that this two-and-a-half minute excursion required no less than seven writing credits.  ‘Only Love Matters’ is better, perhaps, with a twitchy bass line to go with another straight up back beat, while the “woo-ooh-hoo” vocal interjections give a lift to the already decent chorus, and a hazy, shimmering guitar part catches the ear a bit.
Underlining the soul credentials, there’s a cover of ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ by William Bell and Booker T Jones, with Dan Auerbach delivering a plaintive soul vocal – sans falsetto this time – over a grooving little bass line and some string commentary.  But it fizzles out before the two and half minute mark, like there was an outro they never got round to.
More on point is ‘Please Me (Till I’m Satisfied)’, which opens with some ‘Dance With The Devil’-style drums from Pat Carney, and satisfyingly fuzzy guitar – though the latter fades from prominence before long.  Still, halfway through the album, there’s finally some guts and urgency on display here.  And a few songs later ‘Live Till I Die’ serves up a crunchy riff with an intriguing, Eastern-sounding guitar line on the side, coming over like late Sixties psychedelic pop, with its reverb-heavy vocals.  It feels like there’s more content in its two minutes and 24 seconds than on half the songs here.
‘Read Em And Weep’ has a whiff of the Stray Cats in its low-slung guitar twangery and occasionally offbeat rhythm, and would be quite good if there was a bit more fire about it.  But once again Auerbach defaults to a high-pitched vocal, at least until the chorus kicks in and he drops into a moodier tone.  There’s a bit of attack in ‘Fever Tree’, which features a few slippery, slick guitar licks and a singalong “na na na” segment, acquiring a mildly trippy vibe like, er, ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’.  But as it dials down to acoustic guitar and voice it promises more than it delivers.
The closing ‘Every Time You Leave’ has its moments, adding a bit more muscle than elsewhere, and with a neat guitar line punctuated by an unusual “Ssahh!” sound, but it lacks a decent hook.  As such it’s the opposite of the first single, ‘Beautiful People (Stay High)’, which relies on a hooky chorus and not much else.  It’s noticeable, in fact, that there isn’t much in the way of guitar breaks or diverting bridges to enliven a lot of these songs - layered, textured instrumentation seems to be the order of the day.
There are a plethora of co-writers abroad on Ohio Players, including Beck popping up on half a dozen tracks, and Noel Gallagher of all people on three, but I struggle to accept that all fourteen of these tracks should have made the cut.. It also seems like anyone who was around the studio on a given day could be given a turn at doing something or other, be it whacking a cowbell or singing backing vocals. As to what co-producer Dan The Automator brought to proceedings – beats me folks, beyond some not exactly prominent samples on ‘Beautiful People’.
It pains me to say it, but on Ohio Players The Black Keys seem to be lacking focus, lacking edge.  I hope they find their mojo again before their next outing.
Ohio Players
 is out now on Easy Eye Sound and Nonesuch Records.

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