Rock ‘n’ roll success and the blues have always made for uncomfortable bedmates. There have always been bands willing to incorporate elements of the blues into their sound (it’s hard to do rock without it), but none have made it big relying on the blues to carry their sound. Bob Dylan was probably the most successful at channeling the sublime pain of the blues into something worth listening to. Of course, Dylan is one of a kind. The Rolling Stones also had their moments as modern Blues Brothers, but instead of following Keith Richard’s dream of playing out their days in dusty bar backrooms playing the blues, they’ve become a spectacle of the worst kind. Recently the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the White Stripes were both anointed as the blues crossover stars. Jon Spencer was able to nail down the sound, but eschewed the lyrics for simple slogans. As a musical entity, the Blues Explosion could go chop for chop with R.L. Burnside, but they always made sure to let their audience know how firmly in cheek their tongues were placed. The White Stripes were supposed to be modern blues players, but seem to be more of a flashy sideshow than anything created on the Louisiana bayou. The problem could be that a music born during the heights of American racism, that was played by men whose treatment would often lead to empty wallets and destroyed livers, did not mix with the bounty of rock ‘n’ roll success.
Now, two Akron Ohio natives, guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, otherwise known as the Black Keys, have thrown their hats into the ring. After generating a generous serving of positive press on their debut The Big Come Up, the duo signed to Fat Possum records, a label known for putting out records by stalwarts like Hasil Adkins, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside. The groups sophomore effort, thickfreakness, is being welcomed on the wings of the highest expectations. With Jon Spencer on the downside of his career, and the Stripes having graduated to arena level shows, the Black Keys are the latest hope for the purveyors of the blues hoping for a young upstart to support—one, who might even get some play on modern radio and a magazine cover or two.
Those expectations are immediately met on thickfreakness, as the Black Keys waste no time in getting down to business. With a thunderous sound, the title track serves as the perfect welcome mat for a stupidly good album. Carney pounds on his drumset like a child throwing a tantrum, as he provides just enough muscle to his otherwise funky backbeat. Auerbach proves himself to be the perfect frontman, equally emitting showmanship and sincerity. Sporting vocal chords that seem just damaged enough by smoke and whiskey to sound authentic, yet not enough to ruin them from the gut power that his voice conveys, Auerbach is a fine successor to the maestro Howling Wolf. The back to back punch of “Hard Row” and “Set You Free” clinches the album as the best record to come out this year. Sounding as if they were born in a swirl of sawdust, blood, and broken hearts, the tracks are essential listening. Finally, while Carney proves to be an effective drummer, he may be an even better producer, as the job he does here leaves you wondering about what Muddy Watters or Junior Wells would have sounded like had they been able to record in a modern studio. The sound on thickfreakness is the perfect combination of crisp and grit, and while Auerbach’s vocals never dominate, there’s little doubt as to the star of this show.
Lyrically, and with titles like “Midnight in Her Eyes”, “No Trust”, “Hurt Like Mine”, and “I Cry Alone”, there’s little doubt as to the content. However, these are not the words of Morrissey wallowing in self pity, these are the words of men who have been down, dragged through broken glass, left to lie with dogs, but who still refuse to back down. The blues have always been about taking all the shit in life, and still being proud enough to sing about them. Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters saw a lot of awfulness in their days, but damn if they ever ran from it. While the Black Keys will never have to encounter the racism their influences did, they are not averse to singing about standing up to the hardships of life (even if mostly of the romantic kind).
With the release of thickfreakness, the Black Keys prove themselves to be essential to fans of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and music in general. The best thing they have going for them is that they are not shying away from those that came before them. By not playing coy, or draping themselves in rock star gowns, they prove to be brave enough to tackle a form of music few others are willing to. The blues have never been about appearing on TRL, the cover of Rolling Stone, or on the same stage as anyone you’d hear on modern radio. With a sound so wonderfully gritty, and an attitude wholly authentic, it seems the Black Keys are destined for the backrooms that Mr. Richards thought he would haunt. The Black Keys would probably tell you they prefer it there.