AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #246 : THE BLACK KEYS

A Guest Posting by Hybrid Soc Prof

Our Social Distancing Correspondent, now teaching on-line in Michigan

The Black Keys are a blues rock band that’s gradually moved, in fits and starts over the last 20 years, towards a kind of pop sensibility… or not.

The narrative I read, heard, and embraced as I bought each their long-playing efforts was that the band was two white guys from Akron, Ohio, who headed down to Southern juke joints and spent a months, years(?), at the feet of the Black masters of crossroads blues. And they jumped out of the blocks, hitting the track running, with the release of The Big Come Up (2002)… the most authentically raw, nasty blues-rock set “alt” types had connected with since, what?, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs? Flat Duo Jets? The Gun Club’s Lucky Jim disc?

They seemed to have perfected that middle class white guy fantasy of achieving authenticity despite coming from blandness… and isn’t that why so many of us, especially in our 20s, got into punk, post-punk, reggae, blues, northern soul, folk, jazz, afro-beats or even minimalist neo-classicists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass? Seeking something more real than buying stuff by pursuing sublime niche cultural experiences?

As with all myths, the one around The Black Keys doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I’m quite sure the trip South and the education was real but I think the rest of it has been projected onto the band by reviewers and fans, against the evidence… and in a way that denies the band it’s many and various influences. In the name of authenticity, I’ve watched all manner of reviewers and fans police the boundaries of genre and influences only serving to reinforce their own egos and global corporate marketing strategies.

I came to this general realization a long time ago – most notably when I interviewed Mojo Nixon circa 1990 and learned that he had little interest in talking about his stylistic influences but really wanted to talk about all the different music he was hearing, folks he was doing gigs with, and different traditions he liked. I was reminded of it around The Black Keys when I left their albums and started exploring their EPs and guest spots on topical collections.

To start, the first cut here, A Blueprint of Something Never Finished comes from their second release, an EP, The Six Parts Seven. It could almost be Mogwai… or some post-rock band like Kinski, Calla, Giardini di Mirò or, if you slowed it down a little bit more, something from Godspeed You! Black Emperor (wherever they are putting the exclamation point these days.) There was more going on there than met my eye!

Fever then leans technopop which is so much more tolerable when he’s singing it… likely for no reason other than I, too, connect that voice to something I still find authentic. What ties all the band’s songs together is Dan Auerbach’s oh-so distinctive voice and that continuity leaves people “hearing” The Big Come Up or Thickfreakness in stuff that’s simply not bluesy.

But, of course, The Keys also recorded an album with a raft of hip hop, soul, and R&B artists (Mos Def, Nicole Wray, Ludacris, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan, among them – thanks Wikipedia!), making BlakRoc, and my favorite tune from that is What You Do to Me, likely the closest thing to a hit in the set.

And if this is a blues rock band, then how come I have this pretty awesome cover of The StoogesNo Fun, recorded as part of their first single? (If you haven’t played The Stooges or Fun House at a near-deafening volume, by my lights you might not have lived…)

Now, did I say they might be misunderstood as a blues-rock band? I might have been pushing it. Try out the bluesy glory of Can’t Find My Mind. They took a 50s monster record tribute song from The Cramps, added some 13th Floor Elevators, and baked up some fuzzy joy

That’s it for Side 1 – the “oh-no-they-aren’t” side.

Side 2 is the “well-actually-they-kinda-are-a-lot-of-the-time” side of the ICA.

The version of Thick Freakness, the retitled title tune to the band’s second long-player, but done much better for the BBC, rips and snorts, rises and falls just like you’d want a Black Keys tune to do.

If you know Junior Kimbrough’s music – perhaps from the Deep Blues documentary or soundtrack? – then you’ll recognize My Mind is Rambling as a Kimbrough song from the first note. There’s a dirtiness to the sustain, a signature grittiness that the Keys get just right… it’s almost like they stole his amp (pretty sure Kimbrough didn’t use pedals.)

I might have put Just a Little Heat on Side 1 but, after it’s Zeppelin-esque beginning it goes full blues-rock… staying in the juke joint vein laid out by My Mind is Rambling. (Of course, with apologies to Dave Davies, it’s the sort of song that reminds you that power chords, metal and significant portions of flatulent 70s art rock grew in the fertile soul the blues.)

She’s Long Gone, from Brothers, perhaps the quintessent distillation of all the band is… who else do you know who can make a lead guitar sound that much like harmonica? There ARE pedals here, used to great effect. (Quintessent isn’t a word, but, yeah, I’m using it!)

It might have been better to put Lies as the first cut on Side 2, since it was recorded in collaboration with Danger Mouse and intended for Ike Turner to sing and the Black Keys to back, but I like it where it is. Wait? Danger Mouse? Anyway, because a number of the songs here are pretty short, I made the executive decision that 11 would fit on the vinyl… which allowed me to end the collection with Do the Rump, the guitar from which set this whole thing in motion way back in 2002. I’m 99% sure it was the first song of theirs I heard, on a music blog or magazine collection, I can’t recall. But The Big Up was mine that afternoon, as fast as I could get across the street to Flat, Black and Circular – still the best music shop in town.

Side 1 (20:40)
A Blueprint of Something Never Finished from The Six Parts Seven EP (2003)
Fever from Turn Blue (2014)
What You Do to Me from BlakRoc (2009)
No Fun from The Moan CDS (2004/2002)
Can’t Find My Mind from Never Give Up On Your Hallucinations (2009)

Side 2 (23:37)
Thick Freakness from The BBC Sessions (2012)
My Mind is Rambling from Chulahouma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (2006)
Just a Little Heat from Magic Potion (2006)
She’s Long Gone from Brothers (2010)
Lies from Attack & Release (2008)
Do the Rump from The Big Up (2002)

HSP

(NB : Links can be found in the body of the main text)

4 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #246 : THE BLACK KEYS

  1. HSP, my friend, you are over-invested in definitions and the value of authenticity. Yeah, many of us, especially when we were in our 20s, got into punk, post-punk, reggae etc. to seek “sublime niche cultural experiences,” but mostly we did out of frustration about not getting laid or jubilation about getting laid. The relative genuineness of Black Keys doesn’t matter to me because their music Rocks Like A Bastard, as I now say every day after having learned that particular Badgerism.
    Still, I really like this ICA because you didn’t go for the easy hits and pulled from a lot of sources. I would have added ’10 A.M. Automatic’ and I’m sure you have a good reason for bypassing El Camino, tho I can’t imagine what it is. But, another worthy and learned effort so my compliments to the chef.

  2. Starting to wonder how many reads these are getting… I think the authenticity thing comes from having hung out with so many college radio programmers and club scenesters for whom genre boundaries were everything – that and 25 years of white American students telling me that they don’t have a culture, effectively repeating the old anthropology/sociology division between modernizing cultures and modern civilization (but also implicitly recognizing that music-as-a-commodity is often more fetishized than meaningful.)

    “10 A.M. Automatic” is good, though I like what I have here more. I almost put both “Dead & Gone” and (even closer) “Run Right Back” in but the narrative I constructed left them on the outs.

    -HSP

  3. The traffic to the blog has been dropping for quite a while now…..a reflection that the glory days are over and most folk are consuming their music and music info in different ways. Also reflects that many people have other things on their minds just now….

    Don’t worry about the lack of comments…folk will read your posts but unless they have some decent knowledge of the band, they will tend not to offer up thoughts. It’s the same when I write stuff about The Twilight Sad!!!

    The other thing I learned s long time ago is that very few will come on and say they disagree with anything that’s said…so if someone gives it s listen but finds it’s not to their liking, they will generally stay quiet.

    JC

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