THE BLACK KEYS: THE BIG COME UP (2002)
1) Busted; 2) Do The Rump; 3) I'll Be Your Man; 4) Countdown; 5) The Breaks; 6) Run Me Down; 7) Leavin' Trunk; 8) Heavy Soul; 9) She Said, She Said; 10) Them Eyes; 11) Yearnin'; 12) Brooklyn Bound; 13) 240 Years Before Your Time.
Lots of people hate electric blues and blues-rock because it is... well, you know. Many of these same people, however, do not extend that hatred to the fathers of electric blues — hearing angry rants about the banality and lack of soul in the music of Eric Clapton or Robert Cray is one thing, but hearing people condemn Howlin' Wolf is quite a different story. And this does not have so much to do with political correctness as it has to do with the fact that blues-rock has, indeed, become a «safe institution» ever since it finally gained mainstream attention and respect. Inevitably, when a technically limited art form becomes a safe institution, this leads to boredom — and, eventually, ridicule or even hatred.
Ever once in a while, though, somebody comes along with a fresh retro perspective: a burning desire to tear off this «sacralized», comfy gloss from blues-based music and try and make it sound devilish and disturbing, the way it used to be as late as the 1950s. Actually, it does not even happen as often as we would expect. «Rough and tough» people generally drift towards more energetic forms of music (hardcore, metal, etc.), whereas the rootsy stuff falls in the hands of safe and cuddly people (John Mayer!). In this world, The Black Keys, consisting of singing guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — and no one else! — are a curious exception, and that alone transforms them into one of the more notable figures of the last decade.
What we have here is a set of thirteen short songs, most of them featuring nothing but guitar and drums (not even bass!), and drawing heavily from the musical palette of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker rather than any of their «more timid» and «academic» successors, be they black or white. The similarity is in the melodic side of the material (a few of the songs are covers, but most are originals written in the same vein), the careful «retro» selection of chords used, and the grizzled vocals of Auerbach, which certainly cannot compete with Chester Arthur Burnett, but try to follow the same «glass-cutting» pattern anyway.
The dissimilarity — in fact, the one thing that distinguishes The Big Come Up from a generic copycat venture — lies primarily in Auerbach's sound. Note for note, he may be rehashing the old playing styles of spooky black guitarists of the 1950s, but the guitar tones go way beyond that, drawing upon the influences of classic garage-rock, proto-punk, Hendrix, perhaps even early Sabbath-style metal in places. Deep, fuzzy, crunchy, the works. We know this kind of sound already, but we have not yet heard it applied to this kind of material — had it been invented around 1955, even Muddy and Wolf would have thought it too far out to agree to sing to this sort of playing.
My ears have decided that the combination works perfectly. (Then again, I also refuse to refuse to listen to Clapton's solo career, so take my opinion for what it's worth — even though the Black Keys sound nothing like solo Clapton). Already the opening number, 'Busted', sounds like the Stooges covering 'Rolling And Tumbling', and if that is good, well, it does not get any worse from there — and, from a certain point of view, makes The White Stripes sound like a bunch of tame, home-schooled kids (in reality, both Jack White and Dan Auerbach share similar backgrounds, but Dan does a noticeably better job of conjuring the spirit of the wild).
Also, I should not be giving the impression that the entire album is so completely uniform in its approach. First, the retro-blues thing is done with plenty of attention to diversity. 'Busted' is sheer Delta blues gone Chicago blues gone garage, but there is also 'Countdown', with guitar licks recycled from Arthur Crudup and early Elvis circa 'That's All Right Mama' and 'Mystery Train'; and 'Heavy Soul' takes its cues from classic R'n'B stylistics.
Other tracks show the influence of «whiter» blues-rock outfits from the 1960s and 1970s: 'I'll Be Your Man', with its sound cleaned-up, could easily fit on any American roots-rock album recorded circa 1968, and some of the others would not feel out of place on Led Zep albums. In this setting, even the most unpredictable choice — a faithful guitar-and-drums cover of the Beatles' 'She Said She Said' — does not feel so tremendously out of place, even if it is out of place, the only «true» pop song of the whole bunch. But they do it in a fun sort of way.
Naturally, one should not expect any sort of genius songwriting here, even though 'The Breaks' features a hugely effective minimalistic shrill riff (and also qualifies as one of the most «modernistic» tunes on the album, with a brief hip-hop style intro), and the brief coda '240 Years Before Your Time' has some deliciously staged psychedelic guitar on it; with its mock-pompous introduction, announcing that Mr. World is going to be speaking to us in his own language, it is clearly a minimalist tribute (an homage, even) to Jimi, and a good one.
But it is hard to blame an artist for not achieving something he never intended to achieve. What The Black Keys did intend to achieve was to create a slightly different kind of sound using very sparse means, and in that, they succeeded: definitely not a mean feat for two simple guys in the beginning of the 21st century. Not to mention that it is only through these guys that many people might have heard about Muddy and Wolf in the first place — additional bonus for popularization (counteracted, though, by the necessity of dealing with potential YouTube commentators going «Howlin' Wolf? Who needs that prehistoric old crap when we now have Danny Auerbach?»). All in all, for this fuzzy-wuzzy lean-mean kind of sound these guys get going, they naturally deserve their thumbs up.
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