Coachella Dissection: The Black Keys

By: Justin Pitts

* * *

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys have a long history together. First meeting when mere children, the two began a friendship in high school that has lasted through the ups and downs of a once struggling and unknown band called the Black Keys. Many would be surprised to hear that the Black Keys released four full length albums and one demo before reaching the top of the charts with the critically acclaimed Brothers LP. In fact, they were so off the radar the two had to dip into their own pockets to sustain a tour. Despite their struggles, the Black Keys have managed to adapt to the cruel world of ‘the business of music’ and finally reach success. But at what cost?

I recently revisited some classic Black Keys albums such as Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory and quickly pinpointed what made the band so unique and powerful. Auerbach’s pure, stripped down guitar riffs flow so effortlessly that you realize just how the instrument was meant to be played. Not only is he a phenomenal instrumentalist, but the band as a whole captures the heart and soul of classic blues while still perfecting the transition to a heavy, head-bobbing jam. This would normally be the point where I would recommend “X” song and explain how it captures these traits, however, I simply can’t. The list is too long between these two albums that it would be a crime to skip over any of them. At the risk of sounding repetitive, Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory are easily the Black Keys’ strongest albums to date. Yet, surprisingly, neither received much of any praise or attention.

Magic Potion and Attack and Release shortly followed with nearly the same public response with the latter receiving a tad more attention thanks to their producer, Danger Mouse, and such tracks as “Strange Times” and “I Got Mine”. These would be the last two albums incorporating the classic 2-man band. Thus bringing us to Brothers. For those unaware, Brothers was the first album using back up instrumentalists and the band has yet to look back. “Tighten Up” took over radio stations across the world with “Howlin’ For You” shortly following. I won’t deny that each of those songs have strengths in their own regard. However, used to the soul and passion of albums past, I expected the bar to be raised even further. What I found was the adaptation of a band targeting radio play over creativity. The transformation wasn’t quite complete though. Perusing the album’s 15 tracks I found a few that really stuck out as classic Black Keys. Tracks like “Ten Cent Pistol”, “Sinister Kid”, and “I’m Not the One” to be precise. It gave me hope that the Akron duo still knew their niche and still remembered their past.

My hope would soon get crushed once their newest album, El Camino, hit the stands. It isn’t blues, it doesn’t have soul, it doesn’t sound anything like the Black Keys I once knew and loved. Before I go any further, I know how this sounds. But let me assure you, all hipster-ness aside, I am truly saddened by what this band has become. I don’t even know where to begin. “Lonely Boy” sounds like it could be the theme song for a redux Dukes of Hazzard. The entire album screams “we’re rock now and want everybody to hear it”. And did anybody notice that “Lonely Boy and “Run Right Back” seem to have the same guitar riff? If you look up El Camino on iTunes, the first sentence ends with: “… the Black Keys have created their catchiest album yet”. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Is the purpose of music to be heard by everyone? I surely hope not.

The Black Keys are headlining on Friday at this year’s Coachella. What should you expect? All previous negativity aside, you should expect one hell of a show. If it’s one thing the Black Keys can still do, it’s play loud, dirty, and enthusiastically. Should they follow past tour’s guidelines, they’ll pay homage to their early repertoire before bringing out the rest of the band for the new songs.

If you find yourself victim of only knowing their two most recent albums, do please give Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find.

In the meantime, here a couple tracks to keep you busy:

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2 thoughts on “Coachella Dissection: The Black Keys

  1. Wo wo! El Camino instantly became my favorite Black Keys album. They are still sticking to a taditional rock format but not deviating entirely from their established style. The album is different, but in a good way! It is their catchiest, and what’s wrong with that? I kind of like the Dukes of Hazard feel to the album that you described. Sure the songs are quick and pack a punch, but what’s wrong with that? Great write-up though!

    G

    • Thanks for the comment G.

      I’ll admit that if El Camino was the first black keys album I heard, then I’d have a completely different opinion. However, my expectations and love for the band stemmed from their minimalistic, blues-y feel, not from how hard they can rock. Being catchy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I just got the vibe that they specifically wrote the album to be catchy, and that’s where my problem lies. To each his own.

      -Justin

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