The Black Keys
Attack & Release
In the interest of giving you a glimpse behind the critical curtain, This is the process I go through when a band I love for the things they embody, the processes they employ and the greater implications their work might have embark on fucking all three of these things up.
Denial - I heard about the Keys backing up Ike Turner with Danger Mouse at the helm and I thought, Good gig, ya know. Sure, it will suck - has anyone listened to an Ike Turner record produced in the last 30 years? I bet they can get the van fixed, hit a couple more pawn shops on the road, change out the grease in the chicken fryer that lies at the soul of The Black Keys. I mean, were I, their biggest fan on the planet, consulted, I'd say swap Ike for Tina and Danger Mouse for Jim Dickinson and you would have the best record ever, but we all get busy.
Then when Ike went to rock 'n' roll Valhalla to start his 999 year stint of getting his ass beat every day, I figured this was all a hazy mediocre idea that would pass like a well-intentioned meal, and they would plug in their amp, and drag out the drum kit and rock the shit out. I mean, they are the only ones left...
Anger - What fucking genius decided, you know what we should do on "All You Ever Wanted?" We should reduce Dan Auerbach's glorious guitar just after shocks: the click of reverb, stock vibrato shudders and wash it out in soupy church organs? Did you read the wrong name on the clipboard and thought you were working on a Counting Crows record? I could see that, because fucking with the formula like you did reveals a complete unfamiliarity about what makes rock music stripped to the core a beautiful thing. I'd offer to kick this person in the nuts, but the bloodless eunuch behind all of this is immune from these attacks.
Bargaining - OK, maybe the psychedelic touches on "I Got Mine" really do bring the song out. It gives them a Skynyrd/Floyd sheen that just two dudes can't do alone. The guitar bleeds through in two directions: back to the garage and on to the temple. Same with "Strange Times", the boys have done actual Beatles songs, I guess I shouldn't begrudge them going Beatlesque. The Beatles started out playing raw rock 'n'roll after all and look how they turned out in the end, right? And "Lies" is rather spectacular, moving the band into My Morning Jacket territory of a big sad arena sound. Those little vibarphones and backup singers are like rolling thunder.
Depression - Who am I kidding, this bums me the hell out. The instrumentation on "Psychotic Girl" sounds less like a real band than it does a Gnarls Barkely outtake. Why take the best rock band on earth and bury them in all this queasy window dressing - it's like drowning a porkchop sandwich in diet mayonnaise; it tastes allright but is that what you really want to eat?
And what about the synthetic click track opening "Remember When (Side A)" and the twinkles and smears and stuff? You know who this would sound good on? George Jones. His peaches are meant to be packed in syrup, but two minutes in, this song could be anybody. It could be Sigur Ros even. Nothing against Sigur Ros, mind you, but they are no Black keys. And maybe neither are the Black Keys any more.
Acceptance - This attitude is bullshit. Why can't I just accept that I don't like this record all that much and move on? I didn't really like Magic Potion all that much anyway. Is it because Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness and The Big Come Up and Chulahoma are the best records on the face of the earth, ones that transcended the anachronism from with they were born? Is it because one crunch of the guitar, one crack of the drums on those records wipes everything off my desk in a brazen flourish, rips this pink polo off me and replaces it with a Jack Daniel's t-shirt, momentarily trades my beat up Corrolla for a dirt bike? Is it because in the past The Black Keys were one of the few bands around that made me feel less pasteurized?
The track that should be the most egregious offender is actually my favorite; "Same Old Thing" is anything but: jazz flute, bongos, Snoop Dogg whine all creep over the guitar but it all serves to make a stronger thing. "It's just the same old thing, no matter how much love you try to bring" is heavy message I should likely heed. I am not the exact same person I was five years ago when I first heard them, why I should expect them to be as well. Perhaps with my accusatory finger pointing at Danger Mouse and the ghost of Ike Turner is nothing compared to the three pointing back at me. "So He Won't Break" and its nascent Santana-isms - hell, I won't break either. It's not misstep, it's a growth opportunity. Maybe I could learn to love The Black Keys all over again, and in the process, love myself too.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com