I remember exactly how I discovered The Black Keys, now one of my favorite bands of all time. It was 2006, and “Black Snake Moan” had just arrived on DVD. The story of a rural Mississippi bluesman who takes an abused young woman under his wing intrigued me, so I watched it. However, the main thing I remember from it is a song — and no, not Samuel L. Jackson’s colorful rendition of “Stack-O-Lee.”
No, this was something else. As soon as the movie was over, I went right to the computer and looked it up to see who wrote that amazing tune. Some band called the Black Keys, it responded; the song was called “When the Lights Go Out.” It was some kind of sludgy, dark blues delivered with a thick dose of fuzz and I fell over myself swooning at it.
It was one of those moments when you discover new music, and you don’t even have to hear more to know this band’s going on your list of favorites. In that one song, The Black Keys did exactly with blues-rock what almost all other blues-rock acts don’t, and that’s be amazing. I know, it’s a little abstract, but you know it’s true. It’s hard to do blues-rock in this era and have it sound anything but hokey — but not only does this duo sound like they grew straight from the ground that Lead Belly laid, they’re still covered in the soil. And, of course, they’ve amped it up just a tad.
Needless to say, I gathered up all the Black Keys music I could find and have followed their every move since. Rubber Factory is still probably the band’s best work to date, but their 2008 album, Attack & Release (produced by Danger Mouse), was every bit as awesome as I could have expected. The album offered the fullest sound yet from the two-man powerhouse, with some of their tightest songwriting, and they sounded more electric than ever.
Vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach put out a solo album, Keep It Hid, in 2009, and later that year, the group collaborated on a project with some prominent representatives of the rap community, resulting in the very awesome Blakroc, whose follow-up may or may not ever come to be. Auerbach has also taken a role as producer for other artists, putting out career-best albums by Jessica Lea Mayfield and the Buffalo Killers. The Black Keys and its side projects have proven to be nothing short of brilliant every time (excepting drummer Patrick Carney’s stint as a bassist for Drummer). I swear, somehow Auerbach got ahold of the Pick of Destiny and he’s using it for all it’s worth.
I saw the band live for the first time last year, and it was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Both Auerbach and Carney exude passion that can be felt with every riff. Carney is crazy intense! It’s like that drum kit killed his mother or something — he just beat the shit out of it. I took to Twitter after the show and equated Auerbach’s guitaring to the almighty God’s creationing. No, I don’t believe in God, but the sentiment remains that when this man holds a guitar in his hand, he may as well be a divine being. I’ve decided that he must also be the ultimate lover and should probably go into the business of pleasing women if he ever decides to stop making music. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.
The band’s 2010 release, Brothers, was a completely solid feat and came armed with one of their best songs yet, “She’s Long Gone.” By this point, you could definitely hear a different side, albeit subtle, emerging from the duo. They had tipped the balance from mostly bluesy to mostly rock, which absolutely worked for them. All in all, no matter what the Black Keys do, they still always sound like the Black Keys. It’s a comforting truth. I’ll never not love their gnarly roots raw appeal.
Once again, the band is making waves in the media, appearing on recent episodes of Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report and The Late Show With David Letterman to promote a brand new album. El Camino could possibly turn out being the Black Keys’ most popular release, based on the reception it’s had in just its first week. However, it further reveals an evolution in the duo’s sound that separates it from the early crunch and grind I fell for at the start. The production is clearer, the guitar sound thinner and it’s notably more upbeat overall. They’ve traded in a lot of their grit for glamour, leaving us with something we can call “pretty” instead of “filthy.”
I can’t say this is a bad development nor can I say it’s a bad album, because neither of those things are true. El Camino‘s lead single, “Lonely Boy,” is immensely catchy; “Nova Baby” is a hooky delight and “Stop Stop” a soulful number that no doubt gets the Motown stamp of approval. And of course the guys prove they can still get deep and rock hard on the vastly superior “Little Black Submarines.”
There’s no arguing that the duo has songcrafting down to a science. There’s not an unpleasant moment on the whole album. But there are also, for me, very few extraordinarily pleasant moments, and I think that’s where El Camino earns its lower rank in my heart. Because I’ve lost my mind with pleasure listening to their past work — I know from experience that they can do better. El Camino will certainly grow on me over time, as Brothers did, but it signifies a change in direction that could make or break the pair down the road. Though I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t love the opportunity for another Auerbach solo production or remain hopeful for a Blakroc 2.
At least if the Black Keys’ post-El Camino career turns out a dud, I’ll still always have memories and recordings from when they were the very best. But let’s be honest: As long as they stick around, so will I. Because even at their wrongest, they’re still pretty right.