Black and Blue
What’s worse than being jet-lagged? Being jet-lagged and hung-over. So it was last Saturday, around noon, when I woke up with minor explosions going on inside my head, non-stop. Now, I have friends who’ve told me about several remedies for hangovers—ones that they even swear by—such as drinking a Bloody Mary; several cups of black coffee; an Alka-Seltzer or two or three and so on. To be honest, I have tried all of these and more and none really ever worked. So, with my head feeling like it was being pounded from inside, I took a risk and reached out for The Black Keys’ new album, Brothers, and pushed the play button. Joy is what followed.
The Black Keys are a duo from Ohio, USA, and comprise Dan Auerbach (guitars and vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums). They play gritty, minimalist blues with a sound that is at once raw and accomplished. By the time I’d got to the second song, Next Girl, on the 15-track bounty of an album, the big drum inside my head had stopped pounding.
The Black Keys aren’t a sitting-on-the-porch-playing-mopey-blues band. They have muscle and power and groove. No wonder that early in their career the Auerbach-Carney duo got repeatedly compared with The White Stripes (also a duo, minimalist and, well, bluesy).
But it’s an unfair comparison. The White Stripes, whose frontman, Jack White, has a penchant for analog equipment and retro sound, are also a minimalist band but their sound and The Black Keys’ sound could not be more different. The Black Keys are more grounded in traditional blues but at the same time their music has a rough edge with loads of street-cred. The White Stripes, on the other hand, are (maybe I should say, were, because there’s no new project from them after White has flagged off his new band, The Dead Weather,) more garage rock than blues rock; more punk than traditional. That’s not to say that The Black Keys are not experimental.
On Brothers, one track of which is produced by Danger Mouse (the hip-hop and alt. rock producer who did their 2008 album, Attack & Release), you find Auerbach trying falsetto vocals, Carney doing deep, thumping beats and the band even employing female backing vocals on at least one song.
The blues are a great genre to listen to and everyone knows the history of the blues and how they were born out African spirituals and worksongs in the fields among slaves. But the blues can get a bit monotonous with their three-chord progressions and, often, lamenting lyrics. I remember being stranded for the duration of a flood-ravaged week in the pre-internet era in a friend’s Bombay apartment where the only music available was old blues albums. I have nothing against Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Willamson (both I and II), B.B. King, Leadbelly and Son House and so on and on; they’re legends, after all. But by the end of the week, I was a pitiable mess, craving for anything—pop, disco, bhangra even. No such problem with The Black Keys. You just cannot tire of their sound: no clutter or fuss; just a fuzzy guitar and great drums; and dollops of dedication. Indeed, I read somewhere that they recorded and finalized their 2003 album, Thickfreakness, in a day.
I’d say every single track on the 15-track Brothers is a good one (well, maybe not Black Mud, which could easily have been dropped) and if you’re looking for an enjoyable 55 minutes of no-frills, no-fuss but highly electric blues, this is the album for you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t check out earlier albums by The Black Keys. My picks: besides Thickfreakness, which I have already mentioned, 2002’s The Big Come Up, and, if you can lay your hands on them, any of their live performances at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in the past few years. As I said, The Black Keys make listening to the blues a joy.
Three to Tango:
- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Heh, heh, no they’re not a blues band. Check out their alternative sound if you haven’t already.
- Fanfarlo: I’m no fan of the Twilight Saga but check out Atlas by Fanfarlo on the soundtrack of Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Fanfarlo are a London-based indiepop band.
- Drowned in Sound: To stay up to date with the happenings on the indie music scene, check out this UK webzine.