The Black Keys 2024
Photo: Larry Niehues / Nonesuch / Warner

The Black Keys Hit the Bowling Alley with ‘Ohio Players’

You can sum up the overall aesthetic concept of the Black Keys’ Ohio Players with two main points: It rocks and sounds great in a bowling alley.

Ohio Players
The Black Keys
Nonesuch / Warner
5 April 2024

Two current albums, Beyoncé‘s Cowboy Carter and Taylor Swift‘s The Tortured Poets Department, are currently testing the limits for online professional and semi-professional commentary and analysis. The Black Keys‘ new album, Ohio Players, isn’t that kind of all-encompassing experience. You can sum up the overall aesthetic concept of Ohio Players with two (black) key points: It rocks and sounds great in a bowling alley.

Ohio Players opens with a mid-tempo light funk song, “This Is Nowhere”. You’d probably have to reach back 39 years to Talking Heads‘ “Road to Nowhere” to find a song in which the singer seems so happy to be heading to some kind of oblivion. Reading the credits to “This Is Nowhere” provides some clues for how Ohio Players is going to proceed. While Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are no strangers to recording strictly as a duo, Ohio Players provides plenty of room for collaboration. 

Beck appears as a co-songwriter, sings backing vocals, and stays for much of the record. Several exotic instruments are listed, including shakers, cowbells, Hammond organs, mellotrons, and Moogs. Mellotrons and Moogs – oh my! – color the sound of much of Ohio Players, though subtly. No one is going to mistake Ohio Players for a 1975 Yes album. 

The second track, the moody and mid-tempo “Don’t Let Me Go”, has a bit of a rough-edged yacht rock feel and leads into a highlight, the ebullient “Beautiful People (Stay High)”. Beck pops up again here, co-writing and playing a celesta, on an ode to positivity where the “na-na-na’s” say as much as the lyrics about beautiful people saying hey and staying high. 

Ohio Players contains a variety of other highlights. “On the Game” attempts to answer the musical question, “What if John Lennon and George Harrison had written and recorded a song together in 1973.” “Only Love Matters”, a Noel Gallagher co-write, is a philosophical foot-stomper, as is the “Cinnamon Girl” -ish “Live Til I Die”.

Meanwhile, two tunes incorporate rap into the mix, with Lil Noid providing a coda to “Candy and Her Friends” and Juicy J adding some thoughts to “Paper Crown”. Finally, the Black Keys salute Stax Records with their faithful reading of William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be You Lover”, written by Bell and Booker T. Jones.  

Given that the Black Keys have less to say than Beyonce or Taylor Swift, it’s not surprising that Ohio Players is a much more compact listening experience, clocking in at a relatively concise 44 minutes. The Black Keys, get in, rock you, and get out. If song quality seems to falter toward the end, it is only by the slightest of degrees, making Ohio Players one of those records that can be enjoyed in one satisfying sitting.

The graphic concept behind Ohio Players is bowling-themed. That includes vintage bowling photos on the front and back covers and a poster featuring Dan and Patrick ready for some hot bowling action; I decided to submit the record to a bowling alley test. I hit up a local bowling establishment on a recent Friday morning — I was the only one in the joint until a loosely affiliated group of senior ladies (certainly not a random contingent, but not an official league, as far as I could tell) began showing up — and spun the record in my earbuds while playing some solo games. 

I am happy to report that Ohio Players makes for an excellent real-time bowling soundtrack. Naturally, I rolled my best strike during “Beautiful People (Stay High)” and stumbled a bit while getting thoughtful during “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”. It should be noted that had I been bowling in some grittier old school alley where I’d be manually keeping score with a tiny pencil, I’d probably crave one of the Black Keys more raw albums, that is, the ones without mellotrons. Generally, though, Ohio Players greatly enhanced my overall bowling experience, as I suspected it would.

RATING 7 / 10