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The Black Keys

+ {Dan Auerbach} + {Drummer} + {Blakroc} + {The Arcs}

Trenchant post-millennium garage-blues performed by a couple of geeky guys from Akron, Ohio, seemed unlikely, but with death-defying duos all the rage since the advent of The WHITE STRIPES, this pair also helped drag the genre into the 21st century. A subsequent multi-selling act since bursting on to the scene with their debut set in 2002, Messrs Dan Auerbach (vocals/guitars) and Patrick Carney (drums/percussion) injected a life-force into the blues, echoing ROBERT JOHNSON, JUNIOR KIMBROUGH, HENDRIX, CREAM, LED ZEPPELIN, The GORIES and, of course, grey areas of the ‘Stripes.
Buddies since childhood, Dan and Patrick dropped out of college, preferring instead to rehearse in the drummer’s basement. Officially forming The BLACK KEYS in 2001, the duo were picked up by Burbank-based Alive records, known to many for delivering platters by the likes of IGGY & THE STOOGES, MC5, KIM FOWLEY, among others.
Released in 2002, the Carney-produced THE BIG COME UP {*8}, earned them Brownie (McGHEE) points for its hyper-primitive, blues-soaked hooks, even on the KRAVITZ-like re-vamp of The BEATLES’ `She Said, She Said’ (twinned for a rare double-A 7” incidentally, with the trad-based `Leavin’ Trunk’). Spoiled for choice in among the raw and railing tracks of `Busted’ (adapted from R.L. BURNSIDE’s “Skinny Woman”), `Do The Rump’ (a KIMBROUGH cover), `Heavy Soul’, and the feedback-funky `Breaks’, the ‘Keys had opened up doors to a Pandora’s box of punk-blues possibilities.
Switching labels to Fat Possum, Dan and Patrick come up with the grease ’n’ guts sophomore set, THICKFREAKNESS (2003) {*8}. Sticking with the lightning-bolt blues of its predecessor, even to the point of covering another KIMBROUGH song (`Everywhere I Go’), plus RICHARD BERRY’s `Have Love Will Travel’ (a minor UK hit), the lads beefed up the blues by way of `Set You Free’, `Hard Row’ and the sloth-paced `I Cry Alone’.
Forced to move from Carney’s run-down (nay, knocked-down) basement studio, to a derelict-type former factory once the hold to the local workforce of General Tires(!), The BLACK KEYS didn’t have to look far for inspiration to come up with the title of album three: RUBBER FACTORY (2004) {*8}. Star track, `When The Lights Go Out’ (soon-to-be utilized for the 2006 blues movie, Black Snake Moan), was another plus for an outfit now making inroads into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic; `10 A.M. Automatic’ and the double-A, `Till I Get My Way’ and `Girl Is On My Mind’, registered in the lower rungs of the British lists. Of course, a BK set without a couple of covers just wouldn’t have been the done thing, and this time around, little-known ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS’ `Grown So Ugly’ and The KINKS’ `Act Nice And Gentle’, shared the record’s sonic grooves.
Signing off from Fat Possum with a tribute mini-set/EP, dedicated to the location once the haunt of their recently-passed idol, CHULAHOMA: THE SONGS OF JUNIOR KIMBROUGH (2006) {*6}, The BLACK KEYS were well equipped to recreate tracks mined by the blues giant. Endorsed by Junior’s wife (as represented by a taped “thank-you” phone-call on the disc’s closing piece), one could find it hard to decipher from the six excellent renditions; namely `Keep Your Hands Off Her’, `Meet Me In The City’, `Have Mercy On Me’, `Work Me’, `Nobody But You’ and `My Mind Is Ramblin’’. Pity there wasn’t any more.
A chance to shift more discs, the duo opted to compete with the big boys when they duly inked a lucrative deal at Nonesuch, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Having taken a year out from songwriting to build tension and anticipation further (one assumes), the devil-ish Delta blues of MAGIC POTION (2006) {*7} let rip an electric thunderstorm of howling rawk. Charting fresh Top 100 territory on both sides of the big pond, comparisons to LED ZEPPELIN, HENDRIX, and even FREE were rife, as were the ghosts of KIMBROUGH, PATTON and HOPKINS; best examples stemming from `Just A Little Heat’, `The Flame’ and an “Angel” of a track, `You’re The One’.
Produced by DANGER MOUSE (aka Brian Burton) who’d been working with IKE TURNER up until his death the previous December, 2008’s ATTACK & RELEASE {*7} finally gate-crashed the higher echelons of the charts. Also augmented by seasoned guitarist Marc Ribot and clarinetist Ralph Carney (no relation), The BLACK KEYS sounded almost cathartic and resonant in performing in a studio next to other guiding hands. While the album was brand-BK, some of their earlier swaggering spirit was substituted for dreamier dirges such as `All You Ever Wanted’. Sprawling and almost freewheeling, `Strange Times’, `Psychotic Girl’ and both sides of `Remember When’, showed the duo could still bring sonic sculptures to the punk-blues party.
A sabbatical of sorts found the bearded DAN AUERBACH (first cousin of former LOU REED cohort Robert Quine) moonlight as a solo artist for KEEP IT HID (2009) {*7}, a record that stalled one place short of the Top 100. Released at a time when the singer/guitarist’s name was not yet hot-to-trot, imaginatively-sourced tracks were thin on the ground, only a swampy re-vamp of Wayne Carson Thompson’s `I Want Some More’ and a few insider collaborations (such as `Because I Should’ with mixer Mark Neill, and `Whispered Words (Pretty Lies)’ by father Charles), tempered a slightly slower-crawling, snaky-blues set; check out `My Mean Mistake’, `Mean Monsoon’ and `Heartbroken, In Despair’.
Produced that same year, Patrick’s aptly-titled indie-rock outfit, DRUMMER (for whom he played bass!), alongside drummer Gregory Boyd, lead guitarist Jamie Stillman, vocalist/guitarist Jon Finley and organist Steve Clements, had a say on the oft-overlooked un-bluesy FEEL GOOD TOGETHER {*5} set.
Meanwhile, an altogether hidden dexterity and alliance was provided when the pair posse’d up with producer Damon Dash (of Roc-A-Fella Records) and a hybrid of hip-hop acts under the eponymous BLAKROC {*6} billing. Falling short of sales to reach the Top 100 (again), a dated rapper’s delight was unveiled via the efforts of MOS DEF, RAEKWON, RZA, Q-TIP, PHAROAHE MONCH, LUDACRIS, OL’ DIRTY BASTARD et al.
Finally given in to pressure from purist-blues and real-rock fans, The BLACK KEYS emerged from Muscle Shoals with the glorious BROTHERS (2010) {*9} album. Top 3 in their homeland and Top 30 in Old Blighty, the pair brought in a bit of sonic-soul to the mix, opener `Everlasting Light’ almost streamlining sanity before the blood ’n’ guts rolled out on `Next Girl’, `She’s Long Gone’ and The GLITTER BAND-beat of ad-friendly classic `Howlin’ For You’. With the whistling pop sensibilities of `Tighten Up’ (a BOOKER T number not!), the smooch-y, 70s-styled `The Only One’ and the fiery funk of the CREAM-esque `Sinister Kid’ were sublime answers to any knockers of “real” R&B. Penultimately rounded off by an uncharacteristic but giant JERRY BUTLER number, `Never Gonna Give You Up’, the “Brothers” Dan and Pat had truly come of age.
Another quick-fire re-appearance to reach out to fans embracing the spirit and soul of the blues, the rebirth continued courtesy of the back-to-basic Top 3 (UK Top 10) set, EL CAMINO (2011) {*8}. Employing DANGER MOUSE to oversea any rougher edges that poked out from the pack, the glam and rock of the 70s was not lost on the coda of cock-rock on board here. Equally vintage and visceral, tracks of the foot-tappers and shouters-club variety flashed and trashed their way into one’s earlobe; only the “Led Zeppelin III”-esque `Little Black Submarines’, taming a sing-a-long quality of universal hits, `Lonely Boy’ and `Gold On The Ceiling’.
Back in chart-topping contention with album nine, TURN BLUE {*7}, The BLACK KEYS looked to be branching out in all directions. Psychedelic rock, bubbly pop and southern soul, recalling the groovy 60s (or even space-age 70s) under a heavy haze of power-chords, furnished several songs on board here. Dan goes all DARYL HALL or NUTINI under a mirror-ball, almost closing the garage door on fuzz (with the exception of `It’s Up To You Now’) for killer kaleidoscopic dirges such as the “Breathe”-y ‘Floyd-ian `Weight Of Love’, the glam-tronic `Fever’ and the FM-friendly title track. One wonders what all the fuzz was about.
The BLACK KEYS were then dealt a blow when Carney suffered a shoulder injury that put him out of action for some time; Richard Swift was recruited to bolster the band’s live set.
Both a workaholic and fan of boxing, Auerbach utilised some spare time by forming The ARCS; his first port-of-call to cut the STYLISTICS-like `Stay In My Corner’ 7-inch, inspired by the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao fight of May 2015. Roping in Leon Michels (keyboards, synths, guitar), Kenny Vaughan (guitars), Nick Movshon (bass) and Homer Steinweiss (drums), plus the aforementioned auxiliary Richard Swift (multi), the retro-soul/rock aspect of the project extended to a full-set, YOURS, DREAMILY, (2015) {*7}. For the most part, rolling back the listener to a time (between 1966 Memphis and 1973 Philadelphia), The ARCS steered away from the ‘Keys to produce tripped-out R&B/soul on `Outta My Mind’, `Put A Flower In Your Pocket’ and the Daptone-flavoured `Everything You Do (You Do For You)’. A success both critically and commercially (Top 40 US/UK), a 10-inch EP was added to their CV by way of `Arcs Vs. The Inventors Vol.1’, which featured sessions that took in David Hidalgo (of LOS LOBOS) and the legendary DR. JOHN.
© MC Strong Jan-2014-Nov2015

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