The Black Keys play KeyArena on Tuesday, May 8.
I get the reason people are interested in the Black Keys. Really, I do. In terms of what's being played on major alt-radio airwaves at the moment, their fuzzy, blues-y licks and alpha male moaning stick out like a sore thumb (in a good way) from the sea of processed sixteenth-note loving dance-rock bands that look more like Abercrombie models or soap opera stars than they do an honest-to-God rock band. The Akron, Ohio duo benefit from an undeniably charming backstory, too; a soccer team captain and a nerd from the rust belt meet in high school, play shithole bars and sleep on floors until they magically howl their way to arenas. On paper, the band sounds faultlessly great. It's hard to hate on that sort of real American success story.
The Black Keys play KeyArena on Tuesday, May 8.
Maybe it's the fact that, on that same paper full of a great story, lies a lot of facts that are just a little too eerily similar to a little duo from a garage in Detroit, another "face made for radio" couple known as The White Stripes. However, whereas Jack White has spent the past decade letting the general public know what a weird dude he is (I get the sense he probably sleeps in a coffin with a taxidermied bear, if he even sleeps at all), nothing about Patrick Carney or Dan Auerbach is strange enough for superstardom. Maybe there's something unique and haunting underneath all of that unremarkableness, but all I can see are a couple guys who look a lot more suited to the IT department than being rock stars.
I'll give the band a few points; Auerbach's voice has a genuinely nice, smooth howl to it, and the Black Keys benefit from really fantastic production (see Auerbach's phenomenal work on the new Dr. John record). Where I really draw the line with the Black Keys is musicianship. Rough delivery and raw edges are cornerstones of blues music, and on their early records, the Keys have just the right amount of grit to hint at greatness. Auerbach's "guy playing blues at a frat party" riffs imitate the classics well enough, but never deviate or innovate past sounding like they're something straight from a Guitar Center instructional DVD. Patrick Carney's drums propel the songs adequately enough (and he's got the aggressive/ugly drum face thing down to a science), but match his beats with Auerbach's predictable riffs and the Black Keys become a band completely locked in their own uptight orbit. Especially on their last few records, the Black Keys seems to be running out of any semblance of personality and seem to be fine with merely filling in the gap left open by the White Stripes breakup. Lyrically, Auerbach keeps with predictable blues fodder as well. Woman done me wrong? Check. Devil chasin' me? Check. After a few songs of that same regimen, you want the band to break out and stray from the formula into some sort of dangerous, freaky territory, but the band seems completely content to write simple songs that don't ruffle any feathers along the way. Dunk it all in a healthy dose of scratchy fuzz and reverb and you can convince yourself that a Black Keys record is a lost artifact from 40 years ago, covered in dust and unearthed by the hipster Indiana Jones in a recent cratedigging expedition. Are people really that set on this experience that they're paying 50 dollars and up to see an undistinguishable glorified bar band?
So, why the Black Keys? If dirty blues is what you want, why not go to the original source? Many writers much more versed than I have written reams about the history and originators of the delta blues. What I strive to offer is what I like to call "healthier alternatives" to the Black Keys; recent contemporaries who either missed out on the same accolades as the Black Keys or disappeared into history altogether.
Muddy Waters: 1968's Electric Mud is the record that got me churning on Muddy Waters, and it's easy to see where a LOT of the Black Keys cues were taken from. As a reinvention of Waters' career, Marshall Chess hired on psych-sters the Rotary Connection as Waters' backup band, with (at the time) very controversial, divisive results. Where Muddy Waters was absolutely an originator of the blues sound, Electric Mud found him turning his amp (and the subsequent dirt within his songs) all the way up and getting strange. Listening to this after listening to the Black Keys is truly the equivalent of seeing the light.
White Denim: Again, a band with a color in their name. Shocking. White Denim plays what can best be described as Texas roadhouse stomp mixed through the polyrhythmic expanse of world music. It's a little Stevie Ray meets Steely Dan at times, with singer James Petralli's Auerbach'ian voice pulling double duty, dripping into the cracks like melted butter and still harnessing a fierce growl and guitarist Austin Jenkins pulling off some fluttering Nels Cline-isms with a smile on his face the entire time.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: You can't talk about the blues without resident hambone Jon Spencer jumping in the frame and yelling "BLUES EXPLOSION!" at least 150 times. It's impossible to watch any footage of the Black Keys without immediately thinking of Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins throwing their amphetamine-fueled art-rock garage-blues revivals. While Spencer's character channels Elvis and James Brown in equal parts parody and tribute, the band has spent the past twenty years doing a dirtier, weirder version of the blues that make the Black Keys look exactly like what they are; a pop band in a blues costume.
DEAD BUT NOT FORGOTTEN:
The Delta '72: Aside from a tendency to sprawl out on soulful instrumentals, the Delta '72 and Black Keys are cut from a very similar cloth. However, where the Black Keys are a bit better at a sluggish coast-along ride (like the namesake their most recent album, the El Camino), the Delta '72 were the sort of precision, turn-on-a-dime ride that most folks only fill with high-octane premium.
Railroad Jerk: Alongside fellow NY'ers Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Railroad Jerk played a slightly less campy punk rock/more art rock-influenced version of the swampy sounds of the south.
Five Style/Heroic Doses: Although they tend to hit more Meters-esque funk or Luaka Bop-style world pop, Chicago's Five Style and Heroic Doses were both showcases for some of the Windy City's most incredible instrumentalists, most notably the unparalleled work of guitarist Bill Dolan. Managing to dive bomb head first into dirty, funky ruts while still pushing the boundaries of a song, Dolan should get hired on to teach Auerbach a few spots to let the songs fly rather than hover low to the ground.
Doo Rag: THE BLUES are supposed to be dirty and weird. No band exemplified this quite as well as Arizona's Doo Rag. It gets ridiculously hot in Arizona, and one can only imagine that heat warping men's brains. While the fuzzed out weirdness of the band translates to their recordings, what you miss is Bob Log's spastic guitar sludgery and telephone-mic screaming and drummer Thermos Malling's unconventional kit; using old buckets, grocery carts, and film cannisters for snares and cymbals and a beer box for a kick drum. Doo Rag's resourceful and raw to the Nth degree rave-ups sound something like a Tim Burton nightmare sequence take on the blues.