Probably the most necessary of the Full Picture articles that I’ve written so far, what’s becoming a forgotten history for The Black Keys is that they were a very significant act earlier in their career as part of the blues-rock music scene. The band’s always been a duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, and this article is going to try and look at their rise to national prominence and point out just how their sound evolved to allow that to happen. This whole process starts back in 2002 when they released their debut album named The Big Come Up
The debut might surprise you if you’ve never heard it before in how raw the sound is, but it gives you a good idea about the roots of the band. The style is straight-forward for the listener, which is more the result of a two-person band than anything else, and it has a strong blues-rock feel to it for sure. That’s to say that while the guitar doesn’t have an overly-complicated role in the song it’s still got a prominent role on every track, and the songs themselves don’t get overly focused on choruses. Tracks progress naturally to tell a story, and that’s something which defines the early Black Keys tracks very well. There’s more attention placed on the instruments than the later work which is a nice change up for listening to them, but they also improved a lot after this album so other earlier works end up defining the band better. They’re cover of “She Said, She Said” is fantastic though.
A terrific album from the group which meant a lot for them getting attention as a premiere Blues-rock group and showed that the sound on The Big Come Up wasn’t a band which struck gold once. Auerbach’s vocals right from the start of the title track are nearly indiscernible in a classic blues-rock sense, and the band’s guitar dominated style seemed to benefit a lot from the band’s label switch to Fat Possum Records. The Black Keys were a young band that was playing energetic-guitar music and had a cool-vibe attached to them which was hard to argue against, and began to grow a good sized fan base because of this. Once again my favorite track on this album’s a cover as the group did a take on the classic Sonics song (and originally Richard Berry) “Have Love, Will Travel” and knocked it out of the park in the process.
Rubber Factory gets it’s title because it marks a change in the recording environment, as the band shifted out of Patrick Carney’s basement and into an old abandoned rubber factory for the sessions. When you read that you’d expect a larger change in sound then what actually translates to the album though, as the different acoustics and stylistic approach don’t seem to make to much of an indent on the actual recorded sound surprisingly. A good album which marks the first time the group ever charted, but probably best to re-visit for singles more than the whole product. Once again I’m a big fan of a cover song on this album in “Act Nice and Gentle” which was originally done by The Kinks, a huge stylistic difference but one that again ends up working beautifully well for the group, something that speaks volumes about their taste in music in my opinion. “The Lengths” deserves mention here too because it isn’t often mentioned as one of the group’s premiere songs, but I love their slower and sadder material and that track is one of the best examples I can give of why. The song is a really sentimental and emotional listen which is what the blues is supposed to be all about, and it’s a treat to listen to.
Up to this point I’ve put a cover song as my favorite track off of each album, and now we arrive at Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, the only non-studio album by the group which I’ll be covering. The EP is a tribute to one of the band’s largest largest influences who they’d been covering on albums previously mentioned, and it places the band back into the basement for their recordings. This is one of my favorite releases by the group because of the consistency of the material and the presence of what’s probably my favorite song of theirs to listen to of all: “Meet Me in the City”, but it’s also difficult to toss out to much credit when they didn’t write a single song on the release. In terms of pure musical quality though the Black Keys doesn’t get much better than this.
Back to the studio albums, Magic Potion continued the ‘return to the basement’ approach of Chulahoma and marked both their first album for their current label Nonesuch records and the first time that a release by the group didn’t include a cover song anywhere. It’s a mark of maturation in a lot of ways because of that because this complete product doesn’t get carried by someone else’s words, and they released what is easily the most accessible and single-oriented song up to this point in “Your Touch” on this album. With Chulahoma and Magic Potion both being 2006 releases I like to look at them balancing each other out with the former leaning closer to the group’s blues roots and this album leaning further towards the rock side, a tendency which only grows stronger from this point on for the group.
The band steps into a professional studio for the first time and also doesn’t produce their own album for the first time, as Attack & Release was produced by well-known producer Danger Mouse rather than the band handling it themselves as they’d done beforehand. The tradeoff comes in losing some of that raw-quality which made their early blues-rock albums great in so many ways, but what they gained from the process is a much cleaner sound than anything they’d released beforehand and the chance to actually collaborate with someone before releasing the final product. Attack & Release drifts a bit farther away from the blues roots because of that tradeoff and the way that the vocals become clear and the true focus point of the song, but it was honestly a semi-needed change in approach for the band at this point. The sound was changing a bit but it was still definitively blues-rock, just a more accessible version of it which earned them more fans and the attention that they deserved for their catalogue up to this point.
A gigantic step forward for the band commercially and a radical change in sound, but also just a fantastic album. You can hear how drastic the stylistic difference is right off the bat as Danger Mouse’s influence comes through on “Everlasting Light” with shockingly modified Auerbach vocals and backing singers supporting him. It kind of knocks you on your a** listening to it, but the sound is great and incredibly refreshing in a lot of ways as the group actually charted two singles in “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” while trying to keep some of their bluesy roots going in tracks like “She’s Long Gone” and “Ten Cent Pistol”. At this point the music has changed so much though that you basically have to credit Danger Mouse as the third Black Key, but it was a good partnership for this product and a worthy album to give a group a breakthrough into pop-culture relevancy.
I wasn’t to big of an El Camino fan because the group’s product suddenly seemed overly radio-oriented and it’s difficult to describe the sound as anything other than standard radio-rock because of that. The guitar parts which had defined the group early in their career seemed to be placed into the background all of a sudden and the songs focused more upon the vocals and racing their way to choruses in a manner that left you yearning for the roots of the band to be re-established in some way. The album was met very well in terms of commercial response with numerous companies viewing them as the band of the moment and multiple high-profile television shows and venues attempting to book the band to perform. I would still argue that their partnership with Danger Mouse could be a beautiful thing for this band because Attack & Release and Brothers are both excellent albums, but it can’t get forgotten in this process that this band at their roots is about a sentimentality and energy which gets best displayed alongside their blues roots.
My Ranking of Black Keys albums
3) Attack & Release
4) Magic Potion
6) Rubber Factory
7) The Big Come Up
8) El Camino