Hello and welcome again for another post in my Listening to Music Without Understanding It series. It’s time for another in-depth look at some music, and this week, it’s The Black Keys.
I was hoping to write something up with them earlier on, in advance of their new album coming out. Then their new album came out a week earlier than I was expecting, and there went that plan! With it out, I wanted to give it some time, check it out, and then report my thoughts. I think we’ve made it to that point!
I also just read the interview of Jack White in Rolling Stone the other day. In it, he kind of called out The Black Keys for riding in on his coat-tails – a fellow two-person rock and blues combo band, coming to popularity after The White Stripes. And I have to admit, I started listening to The Black Keys after listening to Jack White and his many projects. However, the reason I really explored them, and really started to pay attention, is different, and so I will share a bit of an introduction to the band, to why I like them, and hopefully I will leave you interested in them for their own sake!
I’m a Lonely Boy…
If you look at The Black Keys as starting with their hit album El Camino, then yes, maybe they are just a recently-popular band without a history. After all, you probably know them from this:
And oh man, is that a catchy dance. A catchy song. It’s fantastic, and a great way to start an album. From there, I would actually describe El Camino as a musical. I can almost see it, as the album goes on. Lonely Boy is the opening act, and then it moves on from there, song by song, a narrator telling his stories, moving through a town. Interesting to think of it all as the same characters in the songs, really, as well.
This was not where I first came across The Black Keys, however. That was with their prior album, Brothers.
Unknown, Unknown Brother… I’ll Meet You, Someday…
While El Camino has a feeling of being a whole piece, and is a bit closer to pop, Brothers is solidly a Black Keys album – rock, blues, and with great singles. Maybe closer on the rock scale than anything.
This was my first time hearing them, so when they called it Brothers, I just believed it – believed they were, in fact, brothers. Especially with the heartfelt Unknown Brother – it seems so believably about a lost brother. And maybe it is for one of them.
I still think my favorite song on the album is Howlin’ for You, especially the extended version on the album. There’s an interesting music video, too, where they present it like it’s a movie trailer:
If you like El Camino, then Brothers is a great next step. And there were enough singles, maybe you know and have and like Brothers as well. If that’s true, then my next recommendation is for you.
We’re not going to taunt you by holding the answer to the end of this record…
Ah ha, here we are at the heart of The Black Keys, for me. Definitely my favorite Black Keys album, and possibly just my favorite album: Attack and Release. This was their release before Brothers, but I found it after that album.
How, you ask? Well, I’d been listening to Brothers, and liked it well enough. But what I’d found and really started listening to was Rome, by Danger Mouse and Danielle Luppi – and with Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. Again with a Jack White connection… just maybe not the expected one.
So I was looking on the excellent Discography section on producer Danger Mouse’s Wikipedia page, and what I saw just made my jaw drop. Starting from the incomparable Demon Days, it was a pretty great list. I’ve slowly been picking up more of the albums on the list, especially any new ones coming out. It hasn’t failed me.
Anyway, this is where I saw the listing for the upcoming (at that time) Black Keys album, El Camino. And saw that Danger Mouse had produced one of the songs on Brothers (Tighten Up), as well. And saw that he had produced one other Black Keys album: Attack and Release.
All that is to say, my entry point for discovering The Black Keys and really getting into their music was through Danger Mouse, and his amazing work as a music producer. He’s helped The Black Keys with two whole albums, and more.
As for the album, it is closer to blues than rock, in the right sort of way. And the last track, which samples music from most of the rest of the album, gets you thinking about those songs, and gets you looping the album, listening again and again, considering the music, the lyrics, the experience.
It is also the one that makes me feel like it is a two-person band, more than the others. They clearly bring in a backup band in some of the later stuff, especially on El Camino. Which is okay, but when they can hit a similar level of complexity with less… that’s when it’s awesome.
When the music is done and all the lights are low…
And so, back to the present. The Black Keys’ Turn Blue has been out about a month and a half now, and I love it. Somehow, I feel like they’ve captured the feeling of these three prior albums, and distilled them all together. Sometimes with bands, you feel like they aren’t changing or doing anything else. Sometimes, you feel like they’ve moved on from the sound you love, or vice versa. But to harness all of your sound, to bring it all back together into a whole? That’s rare.
However, I don’t know that Turn Blue would be the best place to start with The Black Keys. It’s a synthesis, but for a synthesis to make the most sense, you have to see what came before. Brothers or El Camino would be a much better jumping-on point for this band.
As to their earlier work, I get quite a bit of it fed to me on Pandora. It’s much more raw, louder music and quieter vocals. Maybe garage is the right word? I tend to like it, but I don’t know if I would like a whole album of it. I don’t have early White Stripes either, for similar reasons.
So there you have it – a bit of stroll through the work of one of my favorite bands. Hopefully I gave you some thoughts on the band, and maybe you’ll explore them more. And hopefully, I showed what has ended up as my second point: they’re not a White Stripes clone.