Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Black Keys

The two-person outfit is a rarity in rock music. Sure, there have been scores of prominent songwriting duos throughout rock history – the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards and Page/Plant. But those tandems were all part of larger ensembles in terms of recording and live performances. The duo structure has largely been limited to folk-rock oriented pairings like the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. And aside from the too-short run of The Carpenters and the now-defunct White Stripes – which was always more of a 80/20 share of talent and contributions between Jack and Meg White – the rock duo is almost impossible to identify beyond the efforts of this week's profilees, The Black Keys, and their seventh studio record, El Camino – out last Tuesday on Warner Brothers' Nonesuch Records.

Despite the duo's unique composition in relation to other bands, the act – comprised of vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, although both dabble into other instruments to round out their sound – toes closer to the classic rock vintage than more progressive elements. In fact, the 11-track album could have easily emerged from the mid-70s, with its hearty blend of blues-based thump, Motown-flavored blue-eyed soul and trace amounts of late 60's psychedelia. But unlike their contemporary peers like The Flaming Lips or Beck, Auerback and Carney tack more towards tightly-constructed, stand-alone numbers than anything approaching the 24-hour song recently offered by The Flaming Lips or the genre-bending work of Beck. Still, for those of us more inclined to less free-flowing rock standards, El Camino should more than compensate for its limited breadth. Moreover, the compilation's accomplishments are more impressive considering the band's truncated roster.

Produced by the well-traveled and influential Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) – key architect of the alternative hip-hop and R&B act, Gnarls Barkely, along with Cee Lo Green – along with Auerbach and Carney, the release is clothed in a more uptempo vibe than previous Black Keys efforts, especially its 2010 predecessor, Brothers. The change plays to the duo's strengths, a hard-charging enthusiasm, the sort best exemplified by punk-informed blues acts like the John Spencer Blues Explosion or electronic-influenced artists like Matt & Kim. This is true from the outset, via the thumping leadoff single, "Lonely Boy." Auerbach's sludgy bass line and stabbing guitar set the stage for Carney's kinetic percussion through the verses. Auerbach's vocals are filtered through a foggy haze, while outside session organist Brian Burton's work hangs some flesh on the duo's bony foundation. Likewise, background vocals from Leisa Han, Heather Rigdon and Ashley Wilcoxson contribute some welcome soul to Auerbach's tangy singing.

The energy builds on the following "Dead and Gone," a pounding affair that somehow combines the same The Clash-style guitar slash from "Lonely Boy" with a Motown-coloured chorus along the lines of The Four Tops or Temptations, complete with handclaps and more solid chorus help from their trio of Han, Rigdon and Wilcoxson. It's such a peculiar blend that its thoroughly enjoyable, and Burton's wafting Hammond organ in the song's further reaches only adds to the tune's throwback flavor. After the track's abrupt conclusion, the jagged "Gold On The Ceiling" tamps down the rambunctiousness, but not the spirit. Auerbach's growling electric guitar is matched with a brightening acoustic guitar part and fuzzy keyboards. It also isn't hard to locate hints of The Doors an the number's outskirts. 

In as much record's opening trio of tracks points to a union of punk energy with R&B richness, in the clean-up spot, "Little Black Submarines" owes its foundation to straightforward classic rock, and possibly the most storied classic rock anthem, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." One can only hope Auerbach is overtly channeling Jimmy Page's iconic acoustic guitar part here, otherwise the similarity of the two pieces would amount to outright lifting. And although the number is dwarfed by "Stairway's" more than double run time, the comparison continues as a similar hard rock breakdown takes over at the song's midpoint, again akin to its classic ancestor. The only divergence between the two is Aurbach and Carney's version contains far less references to mythology and fantasy literature than Robert Plant's original lyrics.

Unfortunately, after such a strong quartet of numbers, the record's mid-section bottoms out. Among the triplet of "Money Maker," "Run Right Back" and "Sister," none are especially hard to listen to, but, conversely, none are all that captivating either. They're solid rock numbers, but not very distinguishable. It's not a moral sin for the album, but based on its earlier output, the cuts are a bit disappointing, most likely due to the absence of the keyboards, organs and backing vocals that defined the initial offerings.

But do stick around for the latter third of the compilation. "Hell Of A Season" regains a bit of the swagger, which fully returns on another Motown-grounded groove in "Stop, Stop," hinting at faint resemblances to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in its jangly chorus. Meanwhile, "Nova Baby" is the album's most joyous contribution, with the return of The Clash guitar slash and a pogo stick bounce in the chorus. Closer "Mind Eraser" ends the affair with a bit of Doors-style psychedelia, but doesn't overdo it at only 3:15.  

Come for: "Lonely Boy"
Stay for: "Dead and Gone"
You'll be surprised by: "Stop, Stop"

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