The Black Keys
I have said it before in these pages that The Black Keys are a perfectly viable answer for the "greatest band in the land" question. What is particularly great about them, despite their mastery of the smoldering form of blues rock they real out like smoke from a still, is their contentment. I get the feel that there are no visions of reclamation of The people's Music in their eyes, they are much more focused on learning one more Junior Kimbrough song so they can harness that dark sasquatch of the soul.
And that is exactly what they do on their latest EP Chulahoma. Six interpretation of songs by the late Mississippi bluesman (and one phone message from his widow) occupy this yard. The opener "Keep Your Hands Off Her" slowly erupts from their multilayered guitars and drums like the dawn does on a day during which you expect you will be fired, or perhaps arrested. There is resoluteness to its slow funky dread, the kind of thing that you want playing as you saunter down a weed-chokes train track to a drug deal. "Have Mercy on Me" finds them in a cooler place, like right after the aforementioned drugs have been ingested. Dan Auerbach's chainsaw guitar tone is the finest I have heard, and is only heightened by the spectral organ that threatens to fill the room slowly with swamp water. Each song hovers around the four minute mark, allowing the boys to dig deep into the material, without turning into, say Gov't Mule, or something dreadful like that. Their sound here is knucklehead enough to still be rock-n-roll but ornate enough to be High Art.
The smoke begins to clear on "Work Me" but the scene is still pretty woozy from the indulgences of the previous numbers. Infact the protagonist of the IFC movie that plays in my head as this EP progresses really doesn't get his bearings back until "Meet Me In The City" which is one of the most vibrato-heavy love songs I've ever heard. Things get mean again, like they always do in the Blues, on "Nobody But You" where our hero is fiery drunk, pointing his quavery accusations with bottle in hand while begging for a second chance. Its powerfull beautiful stuff. How come more "authentic" blues artists don't tread this trail on record? This music, maybe above all others, leads me astray, takes me somewhere. It makes you feel a little dangerous for just having it playing in the background.
The EP closes with first a spare atmospheric take on "My Mind is Rambling" upping the ante on the version they did on 2004's Rubber Factory and then an undulating psychic trance version of "Nobody But You." When I hear stuff like this, where the band weaves in and out of a basic tune with the dexterity of an anime motorcross racer, I wonder why "jam" bands can't sound like this. Devastating.
The final bit on the album is a phone message from Junior Kimbrough's wife after she had just heard the album "You are about the only ones that really, really plays like Juniors plays his records," she says. Now I'm not enough a completeist to claim intimate knowledge of the Kimbrough discography, but I do know that when I do grab some obscure looking blues record off the shelf, this is what I hope it sounds like.
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