New Blues Rising: The Black Keys
The Black Keys are easily the freshest thing to happen to blues in this millennium, but you can’t really call them a blues band. But then, neither can you call the duo — drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist/vocalist David Auerbach — a rock band. Or even a blues-rock band in the conventional sense of the term. Their music is garage rock that knows that blues is at the very heart of rock, and it is blues that cannot help but get caught up in the power, energy and flash of rock. (In this sense, the band they most remind me of is the blues-loving Cream, oddly enough, though they only occasionally sound like that trio of virtuosic bashers.) Today, they’re on a major label — Nonesuch — but the albums that got them there were released on Alive (their debut, unavailable at eMusic) and North Mississippi blues label Fat Possum (which released thickfreakness in 2003, Rubber Factory in 2004 and the time-marking Junior Kimbrough tribute EP Chulahoma in 2006). There are also three live tracks on the EP The Six Parts Seven/The Black Keys.
The sound is raw, primal, discordant, abrasive — constantly shifting rhythmically and yet still tight as the proverbial skeeter’s tweeter. If you like Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, you’ll probably also like Black Keys. But if you like the arena-based blues-rock of the ’70s, you’ll probably like them just as much. This band finds the common ground between that earthy avant-gardist and those basic boogie boys and makes it something personal and transfixing. They do so without a hint of the irony that saturates most post-punk blues, but also without the undue earnestness that saddles most pre-punk white blues. They come off like they simply love this music and understand and play it well, but also realize that it belongs largely to another time, place and culture; so they’d better do something different to make it their own.
Thickfreakness has the most garagey feel, with a heavy overlay of Hendrix on cuts like “Set You Free” and “Everywhere I Go.” Chulahoma comes closest to straight-up blues; “Nobody But You” suggests, in fact, that they can play straight-up blues better than most bands who make their living that way in today’s make-believe blues world, but what would be the point? Rubber Factory is their strongest effort (and also, not coincidentally, their most cohesive). The moving collection of songs translate blues-rock into a post-punk maelstrom of fractured melody and rhythm that embraces a Beefheart spirit while sticking closer to the blues than the good Captain usually did. They even include their own version of “Grown So Ugly,” one of Robert Pete Williams ‘prison songs that Beefheart remade so ferociously.
Rubber Factory, so titled because they recorded it in one, blends Carney’s supple yet powerful drumming with Auerbach’s raunchy guitar tones and adenoidal vocals — though it took me a while to notice, he’s remarkably well-seasoned for one so youngâ€” to create their most adventurous music to date without sacrificing any of their trademark visceral impact. Auerbach’s songwriting is stellar; on the likes of “When the Lights Go Out” and “The Lengths” he shows an enviable gift for re-casting blues clichÃ©s to give them vital new life. (“See the moonlight shining/On your windowpane,” he sings in the latter, adding, “See it leave you/As faithful as it came.”) The claustrophobic feel of “When the Lights Go Out” and “The Desperate Man” is balanced by the airy openness of their country-flavored reworking of the Kinks ‘”Act Nice and Gentle,” or especially “The Lengths.” The latter floats in and drifts out on an acoustic-electric intro by Auerbach that I swear echoes “Freebird,” of all things, while in between his crying slide work and wounded vocals convey a profound sense of pain, loneliness, longing and tenderness. It’s garage-band-blues-meets-country the way the Stones ‘”Wild Horses” is garage-band-blues-meets-country, and it’ll break your heart the way few songs ever have. Yet on the grating “10 A.M. Automatic,” the sound evokes the Black Keys ‘industrial hometown of Akron as thoroughly as Devo once did (without resorting to Devo’s sound or mechanical hijinks).
Auerbach also produces Jessica Lea Mayfield‘s debut album With Blasphemy So Heartfelt (she’d previously released the EP White Lies under the name Chittlin). This is noteworthy mainly because prior to signing with Nonesuch, the Black Keys ‘albums were self-produced (by Carney). The teenage Mayfield sounds almost nothing like the Keys, but it’s easy to see why Auerbach is attracted to her; her lyrics of adolescent innocence and anxiety are similarly direct and without irony: “I kiss you like I want you to kiss me/And I talk to whoever I goddamn wanna.” Her songs, all of them directed at seemingly the same guy, are built around her acoustic guitar and haunting voice, with Auerbach playing most of the other instruments, including pensive electric guitar work that frames her words beautifully. Her gothic (not “goth”) voice is hard to describe; she sounds a little like a sad-eyed folkie, but unlike any sad-eyed folkie you can think of. In feel (though not sound), it’s as if a high-school Nico was to lay out the angst of a typically messed-up young love, from the longing of “Hold You Close” to the nervous waiting-by-the-phone of “Call Me” to the turbulent valentine of “The One That I Love Best.” But you gotta love a girl who lays it on the line like this. Who lays it on the line like all great blues does.